Who speaks truth to your power?

When you are the president of the United States, the stakes are always high, because you’re making monumental decisions that affect the lives of 328 million people.

Being guided by correct information, proper advice and transparency is incredibly important for a president, but it is also essential for any leader. Another trait — receptivity to challenge from someone with a different viewpoint — helps all leaders reexamine their perspectives and validate their choices.

Finding a leadership muse, someone who will be the last person to leave the room when you are contemplating a critical decision, is vital because new research suggests that the way in which we make decisions affects our ability to shift our mindset about those decisions over time.

Taly Reich of Yale University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto have studied how stubbornly we will defend a choice based on whether we made that choice rationally or emotionally. They set up seven experiments to examine this question and repeatedly found that the choices study participants were most likely to unwaveringly defend were choices where emotion or gut instinct drove the decision.

Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, individuals rationalized their choices when they were based on feelings. Further, they stubbornly defended and clung to those wrong choices and found a way to feel good about their decisions. One of the ways in which they did so was by questioning the competency of the individuals who provided proof of their mistake.

This research reveals that we are not only wired to attach ourselves to emotion-based choices, but we are also prone to discredit those who show us when our decisions are flawed.

Why are these findings important? Because as a leader, you are making hundreds of large and small decisions every week, most of which you might insist are based on data, analysis and facts. However, we cannot overlook the ways in which the human brain is wired to work and believe that emotion and gut doesn’t enter the equation.

In fact, many leaders I work with will talk about wrestling with a tough decision, pouring over reports, research and internal data, only to ultimately use all of this to inform a “gut” instinct about the direction to take. This new research shows what a strong defense we quite naturally mount (perhaps unconsciously) to protect the choices we’ve made.

So, what steps can you take to manage this tendency?

1. Find a trusted advisor

Someone on your team or an external coach that is willing to speak truth to power and give you honest feedback is perhaps your most valuable leadership ally. You can choose to live in an echo chamber if you like, but evidence now shows that it’s a path to feelings-based decisions that may lead the organization astray. Once you empower this person to challenge your choices, don’t shoot the messenger.

2. Poke holes in it

When you are examining various options to address a business problem or working to create goal-oriented strategies, give your team permission and time to look for the failure zones in those options or strategies. What is it about those choices that may not lead to success? What aspects important to the business have your strategies overlooked?

Doing this early in the process is easier than choosing a direction in which you’ve invested so much time and emotional energy that you feel unable to change course later.

3. Increase your brain awareness

Examine the decisions that you’ve made over the last six months. Be honest about the ones that haven’t worked out as well as you’d like. How many of those decisions do you have strong feelings about, emotions that may have guided your choices? How many of these have been choices about people –where you’ve appointed someone not up to the role or overlooked someone who may have been a better option?

Understanding the situations in which feelings have guided your choices more than rational evidence will help you create the “mental tags” (reminders in the file cabinet of experiences in your brain) that you need to better manage decision making. Identifying when you’ve made less-than-ideal choices in the past will help you avoid repeating those same patterns.

These findings don’t discount the value of human intuition, but that ability is far more powerful when it is rationally informed. As a leader, you may still be able to “trust your gut,” but doing so is likely to yield better outcomes when your feelings-based choices are challenged by a trusted “last person in the room.”

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, August 2020.

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