These are the reasons you can never make a decision

Here’s how to avoid and overcome these six decision-making obstacles.

These are the reasons you can never make a decision
[Photo: Flickr user Seongbin Im]

Deciding on key investments in your company over the next year may seem like a wildly different thought process than deciding where to take your family on vacation. However, a recent study published in the journal Science indicates that your decision-making approach for each may be similar and based on your willingness to take responsibility for others. Leaders are more likely to make decisions that affect others’ welfare, so their decision-making tendencies can have a far-reaching ripple effect.


But leaders face some common obstacles that get in the way of their decision-making skills, says Richard Horwath, CEO of Strategic Thinking Institute, and author of StrategyMan vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad. Understanding and overcoming them is essential to breaking destructive decision-making patterns and getting to better outcomes. Here are six common obstacles and how to deal with them.

Obstacle 1: Putting too much importance on your “anchor”

“The biggest issue that I see when it comes to decision making for managers is this idea of anchors,” Horwath says. “An anchor is when we place a disproportionate amount of importance on an initial piece of information or data.” Let’s say you are negotiating to buy a new house. For some, the anchor will be the list price that the real estate agent shows you on a particular house. However, someone making strategic decisions will look to the budget as the anchor.

To overcome the distraction of anchors, Horwath recommends writing down the decision you need to make. Then, list the obstacles and challenges. Once you understand what’s getting in your way, write a series of options, along with the pros and cons of each option. This process forces you to slow down and consider the situation from various angles instead of getting sidetracked by one potential option or piece of information, he says.


Related: Why “go with your gut” is terrible advice

Obstacle 2: Overconfidence

Overconfidence, or excessive optimism or belief in your own judgment, is another trap, says Alain Samson, PhD, founder of and chief science officer at Syntoniq, a company specialized in assessing biases in financial decision making. “Overconfidence occurs because we are social animals who want to feel good about ourselves–which is often in relation to other people,” he says. Distance from previous overconfidence-driven decisions may help you see them more clearly. Think back on cases where you weren’t quite as knowledgeable or good as you thought you were, he says.

A dose of humility in the form of getting feedback from others can help cure overconfidence. Force yourself to listen to what others think of your decision, especially if they don’t agree with you, Samson says. Also, think through the downside potential and the impact your decision may have on others to give yourself a reality check. And avoid rush decisions. “Sleep on it and think again,” he says.


Obstacle 3: Confirmation Bias

Another persistent problem is one that is difficult to see in ourselves, Samson says. Confirmation bias, in which we look for and interpret information in ways that support what we believe, can be influenced by a decision to be “right” or wishful thinking, he says. Clues that confirmation bias may be an issue include getting information from the same sources, avoiding information that may hurt your psychological well-being, or “bend” facts to make them support your beliefs.

Mitigating confirmation bias is similar to overcoming overconfidence, Samson says. Think about the problem in different ways, considering the opposite interpretation or solution than your initial inclination. Get information from multiple sources and be sure you carefully consider all aspects before you make a decision, he adds.

Related: 5 ways to make tough decisions faster (and not regret them later)


Obstacle 4:Group think

Fear of rejection, embarrassment, or ridicule, or even a more subtle tendency toward agreeing with one voice or approaching problems the “way we’ve always done it,” can lead to group think, says Connelly Hayward, founder of the Connelly Hayward Company, a training and coaching firm in Mandeville, Louisiana. Group think is when the team tends to gravitate toward one idea on a regular basis instead of challenging norms and coming up with new approaches.

“It is a big deal, because what happens is if you’re striving for innovation, group think will stymie innovation. It will prevent the big breakthroughs from happening. If you’re trying to solve a problem or a challenge, it prevents different perspectives from being voiced and brought to the table. It shuts down creativity, and it even shuts down productivity,” he says.

To combat group think, encourage people to challenge norms, Hayward says. Invite contributions repeatedly. “A phrase my clients have effectively used is, ‘We want people who believe what we believe, but think differently and bring different perspectives to the table,'” he says.


Questions are also a great way to combat group think, he says. Here are some that Hayward teaches his clients to use:

  • If we were to argue against this, how would we do that?
  • What’s another solution? What else?
  • If we had no constraints, a completely blank slate, what would we be doing differently?
  • What if we’re wrong?
  • If it were okay to speak freely, totally free, absolutely nothing to hinder us, what would we say?
    What are we missing? What else?

“These questions are designed to trigger thinking from alternative viewpoints and thought processes and to express permission to freely think, and thus speak,” he says. When people feel good about making such contributions, they will do so more often, he adds.

Related: This simple chart can help your team make better decisions faster


Obstacle 5: Present Bias

Present bias favors immediate rewards over those in the future. The problem with present bias is that it inhibits long-term strategy and forgoing short-term gains for long-term benefits. Overspending, lack of planning, and procrastination can all be signs of present bias, Samson says.

If you tend to be an impulsive decision maker, impose a “cooling-off” period before you finalize big decisions. And learn to think about the future ramifications of your decisions—both positive and negative. “Get in touch with your ‘future self’ by frequently imagining your life 10 or more years from today or maybe even when you’re retired,” he says. Think about your career or business similarly when faced with big decisions.

Obstacle 6: Personal patterns

In addition to common challenges, gaining insight into your personal decision-making patterns can help you make better decisions, says Ritu Chander, president and founder of The Next Move, LLC, a decision-making consultancy. “Depending on what your pattern is, where you get tripped up will be different for you,” she says.


Reflect on your own personal patterns and motivations in decision making. Look for areas where you may be particularly strong or where decisions haven’t gone the way you had hoped. “The process of leveraging this work begins with awareness. Then supplement weaknesses by hiring others who can bring something additional to the table to make the decision-making process more thorough. Ego sometimes needs to be checked, to be able to defer to others to bring their specialties through,” Chander says. Assessment tools can also help, especially those that have been proven to be highly effective in pinpointing individual decision-making tendencies.


About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites