If the System is Too Complicated – Good Decision Makers Lie

I have two friends, Joe and Judy. Joe has been having trouble with his dentures. Since he can’t wear them, it’s difficult to understand what he is saying. The other day, Judy was trying to help Joe make an adjustment to one of his financial accounts. She called the bank’s support line. She explained who she was and that she was authorized to act on Joe’s behalf. The young support staffer told her he needed Joe to give voice authorization. Judy explained the denture situation, but the young man persisted. So Judy put Joe on the phone. After four attempts, the young man was still not convinced it was Joe. Exasperated, Judy asked to speak to a supervisor. After a few minutes, a supervisor came on the line, asked Judy for a few of Joe’s identifiers, and okayed the change.

When Judy told me this story, I asked whether the company was using voice-recognition technology. Judy said she didn’t think so. “Why didn’t you just hang up, find another male to act as Joe, and call back,” I asked. We both laughed at how easy it would have been to game the system. Of course, if you can game the system that easily, what’s the point of having it? Have you been through something like this? I know I have, a number of times.

We are in a struggle right now with trust and technology. We have all become less trusting of those around us because of the nefarious few who attempt to steal our money and identity. At the same time, we have financial institutions implementing security protocols can defy reason in their requirements or are so easily beaten as to be useless. In the midst of all this, we have staffers who focus so much on the rules, that they have lost their sense of reason. The result is countless experiences like the one I described above. I don’t have a solution to all this. I don’t think anyone does. These systems will simply have to evolve over time.

In the meantime, I’ve come to believe that it’s okay to game poorly designed systems; in other words, lie. At the same time, it makes me want to re-think my association with any organization failing to take more care with my personal information. How about you? I’d be interested in your stories.

Decision Making is Not About Age

I’ve always been careful about labeling those in the youngest generation as lacking common sense. Two separate incidents in the past week illustrate that how well a person makes decisions is not based on age but experience, maturity and the influence of others.

Example number one: I received an e-mail from a utility supervisor in snowy North Dakota.  It read: “Last week, I came upon a man in his early twenties who had spun out on an icy road. He was stuck off the shoulder in about eight inches of snow. He was spinning his tires and, at the same time, talking on the phone telling his friends how stuck he was. As I started to scrape away the snow, he remained in his truck laughing about the situation. After a few minutes, I yelled to him which way to turn the wheel and to back up. After he did so, the car gained the necessary traction. He smiled, gave me a thumbs-up, and drove off. The whole situation made me smile and I thought about what you had taught us in last year’s seminar and how right you are!”

Example number two: A couple of weeks ago, I chatted with a colleague about her son, Scott, who is in his early twenties. He has always longed to explore the world and so far has traveled or lived in about ten different countries. A couple of months ago, he impulsively found himself in the main train station in Zagreb, Croatia, not knowing a soul and not speaking a word of Croatian. So, what to do? After considering his situation for a minute or two, he walked to the center of the station’s great hall and yelled, “Does anyone speak English?” After a couple of attempts, several people walked over and asked how they could help. Admittedly, the average soul might not have the courage to do this. But in all his traveling, Scott has learned a few principles: 1) There’s no such thing as a dumb question; 2) It generally doesn’t matter what other people think; 3) Given the opportunity, most strangers will come to your aid if asked.

So, what’s the insight here? Age has little, if anything, to do with how well a person makes decisions. Sure, I’ll stipulate that the older you get the more experience and perspective you can draw from. But I’ve known people late in life who still struggle to get outside their comfort zones in order to achieve marginally better outcomes. If you’re trying to improve your decision making, make more decisions and focus less on what other people might think. You WILL make mistakes. But failure is where most wisdom is developed. You’ve probably heard that said. Take it to heart.

If you are supervising others, regardless of age, compel them to make the decisions you know they are capable of making. Support them when they make mistakes and process what they’ve learned. But for heaven’s sake don’t save their butts, unless the consequences are dire. If you save someone from harm or hardship once, they’ll expect you to do it again and again. That’s human nature. The more times you save them, the harder it will be to withdraw that help and compel their self-sufficiency. For many reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. But ask yourself – even if you believe all this, how often do you practice it?

Dressing for Decision Success

Keith, a colleague of mine, tells the story of going to work in a retail store where the staff seemed to wear whatever was most comfortable, regardless of appearance. After a couple of weeks of trying to fit in by wearing casual clothes, it dawned on him that doing the opposite might be the better strategy. Without saying anything, he just started wearing a sport coat, tie and dress slacks to work. At first, his co-workers chided him about what he was wearing. He absorbed these jibes with good nature and focused on serving customers.

But then an interesting thing happened. Those entering the store began to approach him, before anyone else, to ask questions. After a few weeks, he was selling more product, simply because he had more opportunities. This was a good thing because everyone was paid a base wage plus commission. In time, his co-workers noticed this and began to dress better as well. Keith had not said anything. He wasn’t in charge. He didn’t start out to set an example. He just recognized the value of looking the part.

As much as it is tempting to dress down in today’s super-casual world, you will generally find that the best decision-makers resist this. They recognize the value of appearing successful. Sure, there are a few Mark Zuckerbergs out there with their hoodies and jeans. But they are anomalies. Paying attention to physical appearance has always been a way to contribute to personal success. I can’t count, for instance, the number of times I have been upgraded on a flight, or even been squeezed aboard an oversold flight, because I arrived at the gate in a suit. It is only natural to pay attention to the best-dressed person in the room. Even when they’re dressed casually, successful people look the part. Why? Because they recognize the impact that personal appearance has on others.

So, take stock of how you dress the same way you should take stock of the decisions you make. The best decision makers are also the best dressers. Don’t believe me? Check it out yourself.

“I Don’t Want to Look Stupid!”

Have you ever had that thought? Yeah, me too. Even in my early sixties, I can still get that twinge of fear that I might make a fool of myself. Last week, it was over approaching one of the tradespeople in Home Depot to ask a plumbing question. You know – “What if he thinks I’m dumb?”

But then I thought, “Wait a minute, Bob. You have your skills and he has his. He’d have to ask you how to make a speech. You have to ask him how to fix a faucet. Besides, the chances are pretty good you’ll never see him again. Who cares what he thinks about your knowledge of plumbing?”

So why do we experience this angst? Simply put, our brains are always trying to protect us from any perceived threat, physical or emotional. When we think about approaching a stranger, our brain reminds us of all the times we’ve been ignored, put off or even rejected by someone we didn’t know. It also introduces the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our nervous systems to reinforce the point.  All of this conspires to cloud our thinking and dissuade us from thinking logically and preparing adequately.

Is there a cure? Sure. Approach a lot of strangers and move past the apprehension.  Here’s another example: Over the years, I have spoken at more than 1000 association conferences. As a result, I have been invited to more than 1000 receptions where I don’t know a soul. I feel obligated to attend these functions, even though I will never see these people again.  When I arrive, everyone is typically absorbed in reconnecting with colleagues they haven’t seen in a year.

So how do I manage this challenge? I’ve developed a strategy. First, I located my association contact. If I’m lucky, that person will introduce me to a couple of people and identify me as tomorrow’s speaker. Typically, they’ll ask me about my topic. I will tell them and then ask how that issue impact their business. In most cases, they’ll take over and we’ll have a short conversation. (I should mention, by the way, that I always do my homework on their industry and challenges ahead of time. That way I’m prepared for what they say.)

Occasionally, this doesn’t happen. In that case, I take a deep breath and wade into the crowd until I make eye contact with a friendly face. Then I’ll say something like, “Great turnout at the conference this year,” and we’re generally off to the races. Honestly, this kind of interaction tends to consume more of my emotional energy than speaking before several hundred people the next day. I am more introverted than extroverted. But none of this has to do with looking stupid.

Our life outcomes depend on how we make daily decisions. If we allow our fears of what other people think to impact our actions, it will hinder the everyday relationships and successes we’re entitled to. The best decision-makers know that achieving life’s goals is a process involving thousands of incremental steps, like approaching strangers. Begin today. Take the risk. You’ll reap the rewards.

What Do You Do with Decision-Deficit Disorder?

I have grown fond of coming up with self-explanatory alliterations that describe some of the behaviors employers are now dealing with in today’s workplace. These include menu-driven thinking, safe-decision syndrome and now decision-deficit disorder. This week’s inspiration was inspired during a conversation I had with a colleague who was lamenting the reluctance of many young people to take initiative and act independently.

Now, before the under-thirty crowd goes off on me for making an unfair generalization, allow me to explain my reasoning. You see, I believe that the responsibility for decision-deficit disorder rests on the shoulders of the previous generations that fostered it through their social practices. This coupled, with some evolutionary changes within the marketplace, has allowed many of those entering the workplace to come of age without being compelled to develop the skills and confidence necessary to thrive in everyday business environments.

Many, but certainly not all, of those born from the early nineties forward have been raised in an environment where conflict is abhorred by those around them. They have come of age in an environment of bully-proofing, safe spaces, helicopter parents, and other euphemisms that seek to shield them from the discomforts generally associated with life. At the same time, we have informed them, as a society, that they are entitled to anything they want, any time they want it with a click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.

Is it any wonder then, that many entering the workplace possess a skewed set of beliefs about how they, and everyone should be treated. The workplace has, and always will be, an amalgam of personalities and conflicting beliefs and priorities. Yes, there is a never-ending series of policies and regulations put in place to correct the perceived injustices suffered by one individual or another, one group or another. But while all of these policies are well intentioned, few are truly enforceable. The end result is that many young people end up thinking, “That’s not fair,” when they don’t receive the treatment to which they believe they are entitled. This, by itself, fosters a sense of disillusionment and fear that making mistakes or failing to do or say the right thing will result in the humiliation they’ve been conditioned to dread.

A second part of this equation is the road that many of today’s young people travel, or don’t travel, on their journey into the adult workplace. Historically, those coming of age took on their first paid employment during their mid-teens. This was through babysitting, mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, busing tables, working in fast-food and the like. But in the past two decades, three phenomena have conspired to alter this right of passage.

First, a number of these jobs have disappeared due to technology and changing consumer tastes. (Think newspapers.) Second, many of these entry-level positions have been assumed by adults. Lawn care, for instance, is now handled by a service, rather than the kid next door. So-called entry-level positions in food service are now filled by those in their twenties and older. (As a fast-food manager, who would you hire for $15 per hour – the 16-year-old with no work experience or the 27-year-old supporting a family?) Finally, there are the teenagers themselves and their beliefs about work. College-bound students are encouraged travel abroad during the summer, obtain internships and other experiences to polish their resumes. Then there is the dismissal by some, about the value of working at an early age. As a freshman engineering major asked me recently, “I’m going to be an engineer. What would a fast-food job possibly teach me about engineering?”

So, how does all this relate to decision-deficit disorder? To put it bluntly, young people who delay their entry into the workplace, postpone their development of the basic skills and understanding essential to thriving in ANY job. If you don’t develop these skills as an adolescent, you will have to develop them upon entry into a professional position in your early twenties. But then you will be saddled with developing not just those basic skills, but the skills of the professional-level job for which you have been hired. Is it any wonder then, that managers complain that so many of their young contributors lack “common sense?” When I’ve asked managers to explain what they mean by common sense, they describe the lack of these basic work skills and the confidence to use initiative on the job.

Is there a solution to all this? Yes, but it has to take place on a granular level. Our policy makers can’t enact common sense skills regulations. Employers can’t implement company-wide decision-making and take-initiative policies. It is up to individual supervisors to teach their young hires the critical thinking and problem-solving skills essential to contributing in a meaningful way.

The good news? Take comfort that when compelled to do so, most of these individuals come up to speed quickly. We just have to stop enabling them with policies and practices that reinforce their beliefs about avoiding discomfort and any sort of failure. Begin today. Whether they know it or not, this generation is depending upon you to help them to do so.

Let’s Make a $60,000 Decision in Twenty Minutes

My daughter, Erin, is about to graduate with a master’s degree in student personnel administration. She applied for a job at a Midwest university that will pay about $45,000 per year. With benefits and so on, it will probably cost the taxpayers in that state $60,000. If she remains in the position for three years, those making the selection are making a $200,000 decision. Yet her initial interview lasted just 20 minutes. If she clears that round, she was told, she will be invited to campus for a round of in-person interviews. She’s wondering if the position is worth pursuing, if she’s offered the campus visit.

Even at twenty-four and in her first real job search, Erin has begun to critique the employer process. Why would they make decisions on who to invite to campus based on twenty-minute telephone interviews? How can the screeners possibly obtain the insights they need to make an informed decision in an interview that short? Is it worth a three-day commitment on her part, to drive down and back for the campus visit? If this is how they make the typical decision, it this an organization where she can thrive? What would you do?

I’ve been teaching employers how to hire people for more than 30 years. I’ve written five books and hundreds of articles on the topic. It still makes my head spin with the way some of those making selections screen applicants. If this process sounds like yours, STOP IT! Employee selection is one of the most important tasks in any organization. If you know of people doing this, let me know. I’d love to help them.

Empower Your People to Make Common Sense Decisions

One recent Sunday, my wife and I went out for breakfast at a chain restaurant that specializes in pancakes. Tammy, the young woman at the front counter, seemed to be doing everything – seating guests, cashing out checks, refilling coffee cups and clearing tables. It was obvious that more than one server had not shown up for the shift.


Right after we were seated the “rush” arrived – first a party of five, then a party of three, then a party of six, and so on. As we watched, the waiting room filled to capacity, while everyone noticed that most of the tables remained empty. My wife and I began to consider how we might have handled this situation: First, apologize to everyone waiting and explain that two servers were AWOL. Second, seat everyone, even if it means that there might be a delay in service. Third, offer everyone a beverage. Why? Because it takes the edge off the wait.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s going to cost money.” Yes, it is. But which is the better option? 1) Leave everyone in the waiting area and watch a good portion of them walk out the door or 2) Seat them and spend a few bucks on coffee and juice? Sure, it will impact a bit of your bottom line. But that’s better than no bottom line because everyone left for a competitor.

But what about Tammy? She is obviously a hardworking soul. If not, she wouldn’t have hustled like she did. Now, it may have occurred to her to do exactly what I just described. But even if it did, chances there was a rule forbidding it. We’ll never know. But once again, this situation made me think about how little most front-line employees are encouraged to use their smarts and do what’s best for the customer, even if it costs a few bucks. As someone has said, it takes a long time to build customer loyalty, but only a minute to lose it.

So, what are you doing to empower those on your frontline to use their smarts when situations like this one arise? You may be thinking, “My people don’t have that much common sense.” If you are, I would encourage you to rethink that assumption. Given the opportunity and compelled to act, most people will rise to the occasion. They’ll do it even more when you celebrate these moments rather than complaining about the free coffee they gave away.

Don’t Own Other People’s Decisions

Allison, a young acquaintance of mine, works for a university in the Midwest. This past September, Lori, her highly-organized and somewhat demanding supervisor moved on. Lori was replaced by Tasha, someone so laid back that it’s driving Allison nuts. Allison is a hardworking soul who feels responsible for making sure things go well, even when those around her fail to do their part. This has created all kinds of heartburn. First, Tasha’s lack of decisiveness violates Allison’s sense of order and closure. Second, Allison knows that when things go wrong it reflects poorly on her, even when her boss was the cause of the problem. Third, Allison has grown physically weary of navigating between Tasha’s lack of action and making sure the events they are both responsible for go well.

Have you been in this, or a similar, situation? It can be maddening to find the balance between  saving the day and exhausting yourself trying to do so. On top of this, you might be dealing with the resentment you feel in having to save your boss’s butt.  So, what do you do? Here’s what I suggested to Allison.

First, compartmentalize your emotions. Granted, this can be hard to do at first, especially when you have this strong desire to “save the day.” But if you don’t do something to mitigate this stress, it will impact both your physical health and performance on the job. As much as devoted souls become invested in their work, this sense of duty has to be put in perspective. If those around you aren’t doing their parts, it is important to detach yourself before you become consumed. In this case, allowing a project or two to fail may be the wake-up call Sasha needs.

Second, decide where your threshold of responsibility lies. Since Allison and Sasha’s work is primarily project- and event-focused, I suggested that Allison put together a timeline for each one. She should include budgets, approval deadlines, and even financial penalties for low attendance, late catering orders and such. This will accomplish two objectives: 1) It will provide Sasha of the specific details requiring her attention along with the consequences for not making timely decisions; 2) It will provide Allison with cover when Sasha or Sasha’s boss wants to know why an event or project went awry.

Third, learn from the experience. In this particular case, Allison knows that she will be moving on from her position in a few months. I have encouraged her to take a few minutes before she leaves to reflect how she can better manage situations like these in the future. But even if she wasn’t leaving, it is still important to consider the take-aways since, sadly, challenges of this nature are all too common. Just check the Internet. Managing your boss and his or her decision-making is a big topic.

Your assignment? Interestingly, these three strategies can be applied to a number of challenges we face in the workplace. Consider your present situation. Chances are you’re dealing with at least issue that can be resolved using these tactics. Take a few minutes in the coming day or two to reflect how you might overcome this issue and turn it into an opportunity for growth.

The Cumulative Impact of Apathy

Dear Fast-food Franchise Owner:

I want to thank you. I teach employers how to improve workplace decision-making and my experience this morning was a perfect example of how even small decisions can have a cumulative impact on profitability. I stopped by your restaurant at Belleview and Kipling at about 7:45AM for a small decaf coffee with two creams. The young man behind the counter took my money, handed me a receipt and then walked away to do something else. I sat down and set up my laptop to write my weekly column.

After about ten minutes, it dawned me that the coffee had not come up at the counter and no one had brought it around. I went up to the counter. The young man who had taken my money saw me and said, “Oh yeah. The decaf is brewing.”

After another five minutes, I went up to the counter again. The young man saw me and said to a manager, “Hey, we need a small decaf at the counter.” The manager, without appearing to pay attention said, “Ok” and continued to prep other orders. This kind fascinated me. So I began to study the manager and how he worked – methodically, low energy, no apparent investment in what he was doing.

I waited another five minutes, watching him all the while. Nothing changed. He didn’t communicate with anyone around him. He just continued to prep orders. No conversation. No encouragement. No collaboration. Nothing but a blank stare as he went about his tasks. Meanwhile, the young man got something to eat and sat down at a table across from the counter. At one point, our eyes met and I could see he was thinking, “Oh yeah. Small decaf.” But he did nothing to resolve the issue.

Finally, I’d had enough. I waited at the empty counter and eventually the manager came over and asked, “What can I get you?”

I said, “I’ve been waiting 20 minutes for a small decaf with two creams, but at this point I just want my buck back. Without saying a word, he punched a few buttons on the register, handed me a dollar and walked away. I wanted to say to him, “Don’t you care at all?” but I don’t think it would have sunk in.

I have to wonder how many times in a shift the ball in this restaurant gets dropped because no one has empowered the young man to fix a simple problem, in an environment where the manager couldn’t care less. I realize you’re in a volume business where you may write off customer concerns like this. And yes, I will probably end up at this store again because it is convenient. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not offering my services to you. I just thought you’d like to be reminded that some of us are actually watching.

Managing the Competition Between Intuition and Worry

Last week, I was in conversation with a colleague about whether to hire a new digital media manager. I said, “My intuition is to sign the agreement, but I’m worried that she’ll skip out the minute something better comes along.”

“What is the difference between intuition and worry,” he asked. That posed an interesting distinction that we all tend to ignore.

Intuition can be defined as the way we translate our experiences into our actions. In its essence, intuition is about pattern recognition. In other words, the brain attempts to guide us to action based on our past experiences related to the present obstacle or opportunity. Worry can be defined as a collection of thoughts about a situation or condition that produce a sense of unease or anxiety about possible outcomes. Worry is our brain working to keep us safe and comfortable. But neither of those definitions are much help when you’re about to make a significant decision. Effective decision making comes down to examining the thoughts in your head and separating the intuition from the worry and relying on the pattern recognition rather than the irrational thoughts.

In my hiring situation, my thoughts ranged from,“She can really take our web presence to the next level,” to “I remember the time that guy I hired was taking the money, but not getting any results.” As with so many decisions, trying to sort out all these thoughts between intuition and worry became confusing and stressful. But then I thought about whether Ir eally knew what I was looking for.  The bottom line of this was that I had not defined clearly enough about the services and expertise I really needed along with a retention strategy that would keep this person on board for an extended time.

My presence of mind guided me to separate intuition from worry. Once I did that, the decision became clear. The next time you’re struggling with a perplexing decision, ask yourself whether you’re totally clear on the desired outcome. If you are, then be sure to place more value on the intuitive thoughts. The best decision makers trust their intuition, but they always make sure they’re clear about what needs to be decided.