When was the last time you felt uncomfortable before making a decision? Chances are, you get a little twinge of cold sweats anytime you’re faced with the unknown. You’re not alone, of course. All our brains focus on security and comfort before anything else. So if you’re uncertain about something, the limbic system jumps in and says, “Don’t do it! You could get hurt, or embarrassed, or disappointed.” Even when your choice makes logical sense, your emotions play a significant role in what you finally do. Because of this, we sometimes choose the emotional rather than practical option and then deal with the regrets of having made a poor decision. Frustrating, isn’t it?
So what do the best decision makers do to deal with this discomfort around making decisions? After interviewing more than 2700 leaders and managers, here’s what I’ve observed:
First, they think three and four steps ahead in order to anticipate the unexpected. In today’s impatient and overwhelming world, it’s easy to surrender to our impulses. Sometimes we just make a decision, any decision, so we can get on to the next – decision. The best decision makers resist these temptations. Instead, they consider what could happen if they act in certain ways. Then they think about the possible outcomes these scenarios might produce. Even when faced with no good choices, they make sure they’re prepared for what might happen.
Second, they accept that discomfort will be a part of their thinking and learn to compartmentalize it. Emotional discomfort is the brain’s response to uncertainty. Good decision makers find ways to set this discomfort aside. This can be something as simple as acknowledging it out loud to a colleague. (ie. “I know this is going to be a tough choice. I have to keep my emotions in check.”) They’ve realized that in order to make consistently effective decisions, they need to separate emotion from logic as best as possible. In essence, they become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Finally, they look for patterns of when and how stress appears so they are prepared to deal with it without allowing it to distract their thinking. Most of us are more comfortable with some decisions than others. For instance, you might be comfortable making significant technical decisions, but nervous around people, especially strangers. Or you might be a great networker, but stressed out when having to work with technical data. Recognize where and when you tend to face the most discomfort in making decisions. Then develop a strategy or two for compartmentalizing the associated stress.
How can you adapt these strategies to your everyday decision making? They are not rocket science. But they do require consistent application and discipline. What’s the next decision you’re facing where discomfort will play an inevitable role? How can you, anticipate possible outcomes, accept that discomfort will be part of your thinking, and compartmentalize it so it doesn’t distort your decision making? Do this enough and these practices will turn into life-long habits.