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Some leaders are good at making decisions.
Others are good at making it obvious how decisions are made.

Both can lead an organization to incredible success. But only the latter teaches the organization how to sustain that success after their departure.

I’ve worked with both types of leaders.

The first type of leader acts like a discerning judge. They would argue that their job is to listen closely to all perspectives and then make the final call.

The second type is more like a mentor, guiding the team in understanding the decision-making process itself. They would argue that their job is to articulate how choices are made in the best interest of the organization and foster a culture of meaningful discussions. In this environment, anyone is equipped to make informed choices for the group.

While one leader makes the decisions, the other empowers everyone to be decision-makers.

The former leads the way, the latter lights the path.

PS: I’m writing a new book that teaches you how to communicate effectively so that your team knows how to make choices. It’s going the be published in 2024. If you want to get notified, click here!

Not so easy

Most questions that are worth investing the time to prepare a presentation for don’t have an easy yes-or-no answer.

If there would be an easy answer, we wouldn’t even bother with gathering everyone in a room. We would just send a memo to inform everyone about the answer.

One of the problems with meetings is that a lot of trivial stuff gets disproportionately overblown and floods the attention of participants. So, they tune out. And start not paying attention to presentations.

Another problem with meetings is when you pretend that there is an easy answer when in fact there isn’t. That’s a huge potential for frustration and a great way to start into fights.

Treating the team as smart takes you a long way. Some things are complex.

Smart teams don’t need complex things dumbed down. They need a way to make the complexity accessible. They need simple words to explain difficult concepts. And even then they appreciate it when we acknowledge that there’s room for different opinions on the matter.

Rational decision

Reminder: As humans we love to rationalize our decisions – rather than make rational decisions.

That’s true for your customers, too. Therefore, it’s useful to understand how their decisions are actually formed. When you understand the real reasons behind their decision, enough good reasons to justify the decision will usually be there (if your product is any good, of course).

If only I had known this

In hindsight, it’s often not that difficult to see what you should have done differently.

Of course, this couldn’t work.

Of course, they would be offended.

Of course, the left turn would have been the right one.

Looking in hindsight, you might also see that you actually did know it previously.

You just didn’t take the time to think it through.

Or you wanted to believe otherwise.

Or you couldn’t or wouldn’t listen to your gut.

The truth is: we know more than we think we do. If only we take the time to step back … listen to our gut … but also, think it through rationally …

So, looking in hindsight, you might discover that, in fact, you had known this.

How will you apply this knowledge in 2023?

Don’t buy that ice cream

So, you were a good boy. You didn’t buy ice cream while running your groceries … But of course only to find yourself crying in front of the fridge later in the evening because you so badly want some ice cream NOW!

Which is exactly how it should be. When we make decisions at a time when our habits and emotions haven’t taken over full control of our behavior, it has exactly the effect that we’re looking for. We make more rational decisions.

In the moment, it’s hard to overcome an emotion. It’s even harder when we’re on autopilot because a habit was triggered.

Outside of the moment, these decisions are much easier. When our emotions don’t make us want something so badly – right now, no delay tolerated – then we can treat a pro as a pro and a con as a con. Emotions love to interfere with our reasoning by coming up with all sorts of other reasons why, actually, it’s ok to buy some ice cream despite our intention of implementing a healthier diet, just this time, also: I mean look at what others are doing, compared to them, we’re still doing fine (we’ve already put some vegetables in our cart).

As humans, we’re exceptional at “tweaking” reasons to support our feelings. Which is not always in our best interest.

We tend to make better decisions when we don’t make them in the moment.

PS: But then again: Ice cream? Come on!

Why you buy what you buy

The phone you own, why did you buy it? The career you chose, why did you pick it? The coffee brand you obsess over, why that one?

It’s good to reflect at times on why we, as a customer, really choose one thing over another. I’m not talking about all the good reasons we use to justify the decision but about the real reasons that pre-determined the decision. Here are a couple of the more common reasons:
– loyalty: we always buy from this brand
– recommendation: a friend who we trust recommended it to us
– bad experience: we tried something like this before and it didn’t work, so we’ll never buy from them again
– ethics: we refuse to buy from this sort of business
– sympathy: I don’t like you
– budget constraints: my boss won’t approve the budget so I need something cheaper (and won’t say so)
– status: this thing will boost my status
– belonging: my friends own this, too
– aesthetics: it looks gorgeous
– fear: bad things can happen if I don’t buy this
– … and many more

When we choose a thing – for whatever reason – our brain is super good at finding all the good reasons for why this is a good decision. Yet, these are hardly ever the real reasons we made the decision in the first place. It turns out that, as humans, we’re pretty good at finding good reasons for the things we do – as opposed to doing what we find good reasons for.

The same is – of course – true for your customers.

Marketing gets way easier if you understand the real reasons why your customers buy from you.

Clarity sometimes masks as rigor

People who appear clearer in their actions are often mainly more rigorous in making decisions.

They make a single decision rather than a dozen small ones.

I never answer the phone during meals.

I always apologize for mistakes.

I never compromise security for convenience.

I always stick with the first appointment, even when later a conflicting appointment pops up that’s more appealing.

I never charge by the hour.

I’m always on time.

When you make these kinds of decisions once (and for all), it becomes way easier to say “no” to interfering opportunities. That rigor is what others perceive as clarity.

Standing at a crossroads

It’s Friday night. You’re standing at a crossroads.

Left, there’s a party waiting for you. Right, there’s a relaxing walk through the park waiting for you. Straight on, there’s work waiting for you.

Which path do you choose?

The crucial aspect here is that there probably isn’t a right or wrong choice. It could even be that every choice is just as good as the other.

The more important aspect is that decisions like these, decisions for which there is no right or wrong answer, are an opportunity to find out what matters most to you.

Decisions like these are an opportunity to define who you want to be. By making them consciously, you get to decide what matters most to you.

So, which path do you choose?

Clarity means making decisions

Not the easy ones. The hard ones. The ones that provide direction: This is where you’re headed. This is what matters most.

For example, if you’re a world-class software developer, it’s probably an easy decision for you to sell world-class software development. What’s hard is to decide what kind of software? For what kind of client? At what scope? Part of a client team or on your own? Etc.

In general, what makes these decisions hard is that they usually mean letting go of opportunities:

If we decide to focus our communication on one message, it means that another aspect of our idea might not get much attention.

If we decide to concentrate our efforts on this feature, it means that this other feature of our product might not get much attention.

If we decide to firmly stand for your cause, it means that parts of our audience might dismiss our stance.

And yet, if you do make these decisions, clarity is the reward.

Clarity in your messaging – so that your clients will know what you really stand for. Working with matching clients is so much easier now.

Clarity in your actions – so that they are in line with what you want to stand for. Saying “no” is so much easier now.

Clarity in your next steps – so that they lead you towards your goals. Committing to work that needs to be done is so much easier now.

While it might be hard to make these decisions, once you made them, everything that follows will be so much easier.

Your best decision

What was the best decision you made in 2021?

Think a moment about it.

I bet you chose a decision that led to a great outcome. Didn’t you?

Well, so did I when I was being asked that question by Annie Duke while reading her book “Thinking in Bets”. In fact, everyone does it. It’s due to what Annie Duke calls resulting, evaluating a decision from its outcome.

After all, when the outcome was great it must have been a great decision, right?

But that ignores luck. (And bad luck.)

Because what if the great outcome was due much more to luck than the quality of your decision? Take e.g. hiring. Hiring your best employee has as much to do with her applying as it has to do with you choosing her over someone else. That she applied in the first place had nothing to do with how you decided. But it influenced the outcome heavily.

It’s just as likely that another decision of yours didn’t turn out so well because of bad luck. She actually was the best candidate. But nobody, including you and her, could have predicted that she would be diagnosed with cancer 2 weeks after.

Once you see this you can’t unsee it anymore: The quality of a decision is not the same thing as the quality of its outcome.

Here are a couple of thoughts that I’d like to end the year with:

  • Once again: Looking back at 2021, what was the best decision you made? Why?
  • Can you think of a situation where you feel like you made a good decision even though the outcome wasn’t that good?
  • How about the opposite?
  • What can you learn from that for your decision making in 2022?

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Picture of Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz