Of all the strange things that human beings do, making decisions must be one of the strangest. It’s a very human thing. An animal makes decisions yes, in terms of what it’s going to do next, but its decisions have a different quality from human decisions. They seem to be reactions to the immediate situation – or at least that’s what it looks like to us on the outside. Animals by and large don’t spend days, months or years agonising over the consequences of their decisions. They just get on with it.
To many of us it would be a blessed relief to be able to make decisions as simply and directly as an animal does. All our decisions would happen immediately and we would always choose what was appropriate to the circumstances. Decision making would be automatic, and we wouldn’t have to think about it. You never see an animal thinking about a decision. It may need to know more about the situation – we see a cat or a dog sniffing an unfamiliar situation to learn more about it – but once it has got the information the decision is instant.
Of course we do make animal-like decisions all the day. We wouldn’t be able to function if we didn’t. But for humans decision making can often become a difficult and long drawn-out process. Often the decisions we need to make are dependent on other decisions we haven’t yet made. How do we decide what clothes to buy, if we haven’t decided yet whether we are going to the party? How do we decide whether we are going to the party, if we can’t decide whether we can afford the new outfit? How can we decide if we can afford the outfit if we haven’t decided whether we’re going on holiday this year? We can get stuck in this sort of vicious circle for a very long time.
I have had many coaching clients over the years who have been wanting not just to change jobs, but to change careers. Obviously this is one of the most major life decisions one can make. Often they seem to have become stuck in a swamp of indecision. They can’t decide what career they want; they can’t decide to make the leap; they can’t decide to stay and make the best of it. This can go on for years. No amount of questions like “What needs to happen before you can decide?” or “When is it going to be easier to change your career than now?” can get them to budge.
I think that the reality is that decisions make themselves. However much we pretend to be in charge of our decisions, they actually come from somewhere out of our conscious control. They rise up from the abyss, sometimes when we least expect them. And sometimes we have to accept the fact that they don’t.
We may give very good reasons about why we made such and such a decision, but if we are honest with ourselves the reasons we give are often really justifications for making the decision rather than the real reasons themselves. The sequence seems to be 1) make the decision, then 2) invent reasons for having made it.
If this is really the way decisions happen then we can see why people get bogged down in decision making. They are trying to do it the wrong way round. They are trying to find the reasons before they make the decision. Until they have got reasons that are completely iron-cast they hold themselves back from making the decision. In fact what is happening is that they are not trusting their unconscious processes to make the decision that is right for them at the time that is right.
Now I realise that many people in business will be looking askance at what I am saying here. They spend ages researching, making cost analyses, working out the discounted cash flow and all the rest. Their decisions are entirely rational, it seems. Yet who looking around at the way most governments and businesses actually work in practice could believe that their decisions are made exclusively on rational grounds?
When I look a the major decisions that I have made in my life – things like getting married, changing my career, deciding to have children, where to live – I can see that the last thing I did at the time was weigh things up in a rational manner. It’s only now looking back on them that I can see some sort of pattern in them. Most of the decisions that seemed like a complete leap in the dark have turned out very well. Most of the decisions that I made because it seemed to be the right thing to do turned out less well. Where I’ve made decisions on the basis of pressure from other people’s concept of what would be correct, it’s usually turned out less well. In other words where I have allowed the decision to make itself it has turned out well. Where I have allowed reasons to make the decision for me it has turned out badly – or perhaps not badly but it has not been a decision that satisfies me.
What about the truly disastrous decisions that I have made during my life? (and there have been more than a few) These have usually been made on the impulse of the moment. They have been reactions rather than decisions. A decision needs time to mature. The important thing to be doing during this maturation process is to gather knowledge about the situation. It is important to gather knowledge without prejudice to the decision – in other words you are not trying to find reasons for making the decision one way or the other. The sequence for a good decision is Research – Decision – Reasons; not Research – Reasons – Decision; or, even worse, Reasons – Research – Decision. You may be asking why, if you make a decision according to the Research – Decision – Reasons model, you need the last stage at all. Strictly speaking you don’t, but you have to have something to tell your friends, family and shareholders!
I know this sounds completely counter-intuitive and contrary to everything taught in books on decision-making. But it is in practice the way that decisions are made. Look at the last major decision you made in your life, perhaps something like buying a new house or car, or changing jobs, or getting married. Did you examine the possibilities? You almost certainly did. Did you weight up the pros and cons? You probably did to some extent. Did you make your decision on the basis of the pros and cons? If you are honest, the answer is probably no. The decision itself was something deeper, more visceral. If you did make the decision purely on the basis of the pros and cons, are you entirely happy with the results of that decision?
Finally, having made your decision for better or for worse, do you now have an armoury of reasons for having made the choice? I’ll bet you do! But were they the real reasons? You can only answer that question for yourself.
I am going to give you three simple exercises to give you the feel of what is involved in making a decision. Each involves holding a pencil out in front of you at arm’s length and then either dropping it or not dropping it.
1) The first time you have to decide before you hold the pencil out whether you are going to drop it or not, and also how long you are going to hold it out for.
2) Now repeat exercise 1), but this time you have the option of changing your mind once you are holding the pencil out.
3) This time do not make the decision before holding the pencil out, but just hold the pencil out and let it fall or not fall of its own accord.
Which was the easiest way of making the decision? In which did the action take place in the most graceful and natural way?