Better Decisions Through Distance

cartoon on decision making

Decisions are a necessary part of our lives, both personally and professionally. Many of us struggle with feelings of doubt or uncertainty when faced with making a decision, large or small.  Often we won’t know the outcome of our decisions for days, weeks, months or even years; which further drives anxiety. Research tells us it is better to make a poor decision than no decision, so what can we do to improve our decision making skill? 

The good news is there are many disciplines and techniques we can deploy to improve our decision-making skills. In this article, we will talk about one option-creating emotional distance.  I can remember years ago I made a pact with myself that I would no longer purchase clothing unless I absolutely LOVED the way it fit. The distinction here for me was in loving the fit, not just the article of clothing. I grew tired of the growing number of ‘cute things’ in my closet that I would put on in the morning, take one look in the mirror, and then choose something that ‘looked better on’. Sound familiar, ladies (and you too, gentlemen)? This was one small way to help me distance myself (emotionally) from loving (and therefore wanting) a cute new top or dress. 

In our professional lives, we don’t generally have trying it on as an option for determining how to proceed when faced with a decision.  There are, fortunately for us, several other options to provide emotional distance for us. Let’s first discuss what I mean by emotional distance. Many of the decisions we need to make include people, product lines, or relationships that we have invested much of our time and energy. When faced with an important decision, the short-term emotional charge (good or bad) can override our rational thought processes. Most of us have probably heard that most decisions are made on an emotional level, and then we look for ways to rationally support our decision. What we need to do is short-circuit the instinct to make emotional decisions and allow rational thoughts to prevail (or at least have significant influence). 

To do this, ask yourself (or your team/colleague), “If we suddenly found ourselves replaced with a new leadership team, what decision would they make faced with the same information and data?”  This sounds simple, but it helps emotionally shift your mind to a more objective space. This is exactly what Andy Grove did at Intel that finally helped them break free of their failing memory business and go all in on their microprocessor business. Once they asked that question of themselves, it became clear that they were emotionally attached to their first product-their first love-long after it was no longer a viable product line for them. 

Another question that will work well in helping you make business and personal decisions is, “What advice would you give your colleague (best friend)?”  Pivoting our frame of reference challenges us to think about what advice we would provide to someone else with the same issue/opportunity and accompanying data.  This helps us leverage the superpower of emotional distancing: it is much easier to make conclusions about what we think others should do when we are not the one directly affected.  .We have all experienced watching a friend or a colleague make what we see as a seemingly poor or even potentially dangerous decision and wonder how our smart friend/colleague doesn’t see what we can see. By being more objective in viewing our alternatives, it becomes easier to make decisions.

And finally, we can deploy the 10-10-10 rule. This is great for those decisions that require you to do or not do; act or not act. Ask yourself, “If I (do or not do this thing); how will I feel about the possible outcomes/consequences in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years?” This helps create emotional distance by allowing us to determine if our immediate emotional response is warranted; that new exciting job opportunity or voicing a dissenting opinion in a staff meeting. For example, consider the aforementioned dissenting opinion. What is the impact of the worst and best scenarios and what will those look and feel like in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now? When you use this lens, many times the clear option is to speak up. Your immediate emotional reaction (fear) that wants to keep you silent is very short-term.  The better decisions are those that focus on the long term outcomes.

These are just a handful of strategies to help you emotionally distance yourself from a decision. Creating actual distance (a waiting period-something I do for any frivolous purchase) is an option that works well when the emotion is really positive. Putting some distance after the euphoric rush of a new job opportunity, product line, purchase (there are some very talented sales people out there!) will cool down your heat-of-the-moment urge to jump.  

Give one of these strategies a try the next time you are faced with a decision that stirs up your emotions-good or bad. There are several other tools and disciplines available to you (Decisive by the Heath Brothers is a good place to start.). As a leader, you can help individuals in your organization make better decisions by teaching them to ask questions that help create space – the space necessary to see the issue from a different perspective. . 

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