April 24, 2018

Learning to be a Better Decision Maker | Leading From the Library

Much of what leaders do is make decisions – some of them tough ones.  Humans are inherently bad at this. If you’re a leader who makes decisions, how do you get better at it?

A successful business leader visited an MBA class to enlighten the students. At the end of the talk a student asked the leader the secret of success. “Two words—good decisions.” A second student asked, “Well, how do you learn to make good decisions?” “One word— experience.” A third student asked, “So how do you get the experience?” “Two words” answered the business leader, “bad decisions.”

We all make decisions

Every day academic library staff make hundreds of decisions. The reference librarian decides whether or not to let a “library use only” volume be borrowed. A circulation team must decide if a patron’s  fines should be waived. The majority of these decisions, while they contribute to smooth day-to-day operations, will be instantly forgotten and have no impact on the library’s strategic direction. Nor will opinions be made about the decision maker based on these decisions. The same cannot always be said of decisions made by leaders. Of all the skills associated with leadership, decision making is perhaps the one that most visibly reflects on the quality of the leader and shapes the opinion held by internal and external stakeholders about the leader and the library. Good decision-making ability is critical for leaders, and among the most difficult of skills to master.

 We make bad decisions

Long held views about decision making established humans as rational-analytical decision makers. We would identify all the possible alternatives. Next, a thorough comparative benefits analysis would identify all the advantages and disadvantages of each possible option. The final result of this process would be the optimal decision. This sounds great, but later research shattered the myth of rational-analytical decision making.

Herbert Simon disputed that humans even have the capacity to rationally identify and evaluate multiple options. In his bounded rationality theory he argued that humans’ limited cognitive power actually resulted in “satisficing”. Instead of making the optimal choice we simply satisfied the need to choose by making a good enough decision often based on experience and gut instinct. Academic librarians observe this among their student population. A rationally analytical student would clearly choose to use the library’s high quality scholarly research resources, yet owing to digital distraction and procrastination, the clear choice is satisficing for Google, Wikipedia and a cut-and-paste research paper – with the mandatory but quickly acquired two or three scholarly citations.

If humans had infallible instincts we would all be great decision makers, but in reality our instincts at best mislead us and at worst are flat out wrong. Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory demonstrates that humans are terrible at choosing between even a few options. Our main failing as decision makers, as the research showed, is our tendency to avoid losses instead of seeking gains. When Kahneman and Tversky asked their subjects to make decisions from among a set of options—which were all framed differently but led to the identical outcome—people would almost always choose the option to avoid losses. If anything, our loss aversion tendencies make us totally irrational as decision makers. Prospect theory helps to explain why your colleagues frequently ignore your great ideas for change, and suggest that you should reframe them as loss aversion opportunities rather than promoting risks with potential gains (e.g., “If we don’t add some games to our collection all the digital natives will stop coming to the library” as opposed to “If we add games to our collection just think about all the new students who will come to the library”).

If you follow the more contemporary behavioral economics research of Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, you know that he consistently demonstrates how poorly people make decisions, and that how we frame decisions can radically change the outcomes. ( Ariely is speaking at ALA and if you’ve not heard him speak you should be there.) Add to our poor decision making tendencies the research of Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, and you see that we also suffer from attention blindness. You probably saw that invisible gorilla video, that demonstrates how humans can miss something completely obvious if there is even the slightest bit of distraction. How can we possibly be great analytical decision makers if we can barely pay attention to all the information needed to make good decisions?

In higher education environments, decision making is portrayed as even more dysfunctional and volatile. Cohen, March and Olsen, in 1972, shared their Garbage Can Model of Decision Making, that identified a predictive view of what happens in higher education decision making. They described colleges and universities as “organized anarchies” where decisions were not made so much as happened only under certain circumstances. Multiple solutions would enter the garbage can in search of problems, and in time, solutions would attach themselves to a problem. In other words, anticipate a long and difficult decision process and be prepared to persist. A rejected idea or could be easily accepted in the future in a different situation.

What do we do?

If all the research confirms our terrible decision making skills, what’s a leader to do? A good place to start is by gaining a better understanding of your decision-making style. Think of decision-making style as a spectrum upon which we have a highly data-driven, analytical approach on one end and a completely intuitive, instinctive style on the other end. Neither of those singular methods is likely to result in consistently good decision making based on everything we now know about the failings of purely data driven or gut-based approaches. If you need direction on finding your place on the spectrum, consider positioning yourself as an informed skeptic. In their article “Good Data Won’t Guarantee Good Decisions” Shvetank Shah, Andrew Horne, and Jaime Capellá share research that confirms that just being data-driven is insufficient for good decision making, but neither is an instinctive approach. You need to employ a mix of both. As an informed skeptic the decision maker makes use of data to understand a decision situation, brings their intuition to the process, but thoughtfully questions and is skeptical about his or her own decisions as well as those of others. The article offers a self-diagnostic test leaders can use to assess their decision-making style. (Those interested in developing a better blend of analytical and intuitive styles may also want to read Roger Martin’s Opposable Mind and Design of Business).

Keep it simple

If the informed skeptic approach strikes you as a bit complex, and if all the theories about decision making are just overwhelming, perhaps a better approach is to develop some simple rules or principles to serve as guidelines to help you make better decisions or at least keep you from making bad ones. One of my must read HBR blogs is authored by Tony Schwartz whose ideas and advice are sensible and eminently practical. In a recent post Schwartz gave three simple ideas for being a better decision maker.

  • Be a more mindful decision maker. That means being self-aware of how you are reacting to a decision situation and the factors and emotions driving your decision. Good decision makers step back from the decision-making process in order to ask questions, obtain feedback and think more deeply about the potential cascading consequences of the decision outcome.
  • Put your decisions into perspective. Schwartz advises asking a simple question with each challenging decision: “Which choice is going to add the greatest value and serve me best over time?”. Not all of your decisions are equal. Delegate the ones that others can make, and concentrate your energy and time on dealing with those that are hard but have the greatest capacity to result in substantive change.
  • Schwartz writes that the best decisions result from leaders deciding to do the right thing rather than what is most expedient or comfortable. Choosing the right thing, “may involve sacrifice and discomfort.” Good decisions, it usually turns out, are the ones we can look back on and know we made the right choice.

Student of decision making

If you’ve made the commitment to lead in your organization, at any level or capacity, you no doubt will want to make the best decisions possible, unless your idea of fun is taking responsibility for a bad decision—a situation all leaders must ultimately confront. Experts debate whether individuals can learn to be leaders. When it comes to decision making there is no debate. Not only can leaders learn to improve their decision making, but it is the natural outcome of making them. The experience gained from every decision made, especially the bad ones, is a learning process.

While there may be some natural born leaders, there is no such thing as a natural born great decision maker. Our natural state is awful decision making. That may explain why academic librarians hesitate to take a leadership role on campus; fear of having to make decisions or worrying about getting it wrong. The best way to improve is to put one’s self into situations requiring decisions. We all make bad ones, but we survive, learn from it, and make better decisions in the future. Therefore, all current and aspiring leaders can always be learning, from behavioral research, from business experts, and from the act of decision making, to improve the quality of their decisions.  This all starts by making the most important decision—to commit to constant learning to be a better leader.


Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Good post Steven! I have added a few more titles to my “must read” list.