Get Over Yourself - Decision Bias

We are all flawed when it comes to making decisions. Like it or not, people are intuitively pretty crappy decision-makers. We often can't see outside our own frame of reference, we are riddled with biases and assumptions, we are poor statisticians and we overestimate our own judgement.

Worse - we treat decision-making as though it's a god-given talent. We promote and elect on the basis of "good judgement" and reinforce the idea that making good decisions is innate, rather than a skill we need to work on.

The truth is - we form our opinions and make our decisions based on a wide range of influences. Some we know about, some we don't. A lot of the time that's totally OK - in fact, it's often desirable! Especially for low-level, repeatable decisions in areas that we have plenty of knowledge in.

In those situations, we don't need frameworks or super-skills or defined processes. We make the most of our internal personal assistant (how I think of our intuition) and we move on. However, the internal PA can become troublesome when something changes. When the stakes are high, or the pressure is on, or the topic is unfamiliar - or a combination of these things.

We form our points of view from a wild and eclectic mix of influences - few of which we are totally cognizant of. Why? Because we have a very powerful innate preference for things that make sense - and we tend to ignore or downplay things that don't.

I developed the Opinion Quadrant as a way of understanding our different conscious and subconscious influences. Each quadrant represents a unique grouping of information sources, some more trustworthy when others. When I'm working with clients to boost capability or make strategic decisions, the "4 As" are a handy reference.

 Opinion Quadrant - the 4As

Opinion Quadrant - the 4As

The quadrants are a useful framework to shine a light on some of the unexpected influences on our decisions. With a bit of honest reflection, we can craft a useful touchpoint that challenges our ideas and perspectives as we move through a decision process.

This was a useful exercise for Councillors and senior managers in a Council in the lower South Island recently. The workshop brief was to find a clear path forward for a stalled community project that had a long community, organisational and political history. (Read: baggage.) Working through the quadrants, we realised that there were some really powerful assumptions, peergroup influences and personal experiences clouding the way our decision makers were approaching the future of this facility.

Thankfully, acknowledging these influences together had a huge impact on the rest of our workshop. By calling out the elephants in the room, stakeholders were able to interact in a more open and constructive way. Participants were heard challenging each other with statements like "but how do we really know what the community thinks?" or  "are we just assuming that?"

The trick is to get ourselves and find comfort in being fallible. This is particularly powerful in a group setting, like the one above, because it grants collective permission to challenge each others' views from a place of respect and mutual bias, without the fear of things getting personal.

How To Get Over Yourself

For Beginners

  • Include a 'gaps and assumptions' section on your meeting agenda or report templates

  • Run Assumption Buster workshops for critical projects and policy decisions.

For High-Achievers

  • Book senior executives and decision-makers in for decision leadership coaching to boost bias awareness

  • Design idiot-proofed decision frameworks to build bias detection into all significant decisions.