What qualities do people value in their leaders? According to research, it’s decisiveness. A study by Ketchum, a global communications consultancy, found that decisiveness was one of the top three qualities that help leaders build credibility. The results of another study, by global assessment firm ghSmart—which involved 17,000 C-suite executives over the course of 10 years—identified “deciding with speed and conviction” as one of the behaviors that distinguish the most successful CEOs from their less talented peers.
Although it can be critical for leaders to make the right choices and to appear diplomatic, leaders and aspiring leaders often fail to be decisive. Instead, they spend too much time deliberating on their options. Unfortunately for them, this indecisive behavior can be detrimental.
How the brain makes decisions
There are two general systems in the brain for decision-making: a slower, more deliberate system and a faster one based more on your instincts. There are deep structures that have existed in your brain for a long time, and this supports the speedier system. Activity in a newer, more superficial part of the brain located behind our foreheads, aka the prefrontal cortex, drives the slower system for decision-making. These two systems regularly interact to try to ensure that we make the best choices we possibly can.
When you’re indecisive, you’re relying too much on the slow, deliberate system rather than “trusting your gut.” In many instances, you tend to be indecisive when you’re afraid of decision regret. In other words, when people struggle to make a decision, it’s often because they are worried that they will make a choice that leads to a bad outcome.
Fretting excessively over the quality of our decisions, unfortunately, hurts our confidence, exacerbating our decision paralysis. While contemplating a choice, we are in a state of uncertainty, which can make us feel out of control and even pessimistic.
What being decisive says about you
Decisiveness helps to build credibility because of what it signals about the decision-maker. While specific choices matter, the way we make those choices matters too and provides information on what we know and how we feel. When you act decisively, you are showing people that:
Some people are inherently more decisive than others, and the likelihood of being decisive correlates with specific characteristics. Indeed, researchers have found that personality traits like emotional stability are associated with decisiveness. Those who are more prone to delusion tend to be more indecisive.
As humans, we also tend to link decisiveness with competence. When people around us act decisively, we are more likely to view them as reliable and trustworthy.
The only way to intuitively know the right decision is to have relevant knowledge. Some information is so critical to our survival that corresponding decisions are built into our biology. For instance, we pull our hands off a hot stove and recoil from rotten smells in fractions of a second. We don’t take time to deliberate on the pros and cons of our potential responses. Instead, we know how to react because our bodies are biologically programmed to know that certain stimuli are dangerous and how to act accordingly.
We are continually developing new instincts as we go through different experiences. These new, learned instincts start as information that we ponder in the more rational parts of our brains. As we use that information more and more, it gets transferred to parts of our brain that support more rapid decision-making.
You need a lot of exposure to information for it to make its way to the part of the brain that will deploy it rapidly. What this means is that when you have the relevant knowledge and experience, you’ll quickly process information and make a fast decision. And when people see you deploy fast decisions, they’re more likely to assume that you are competent and well-informed on the topic at hand.
Tips for improving your decisiveness
So how can we make ourselves more decisive? Here are a few tips that can help.
- Collect some information. Sometimes we don’t have a gut instinct on how to choose an action in a given situation. When that’s the case, chances are that you don’t have enough information for your brain to help tilt you in one direction or another. It’s vital to recognize that at some point, more information offers only diminishing returns, but you do need some information to help you make decisions. If you feel stuck, think about what you want to accomplish, and pick one data point that could improve your understanding of the possible outcomes. Once you’ve gathered just a little bit of information, chances are you’ll probably have some instinct about the right decision.
- Recognize that failing to make a decision is a decision. When we fail to make a decision, we sit in a state of limbo, and we don’t acquire any new information. However, once you make a choice, you move forward and collect data associated with that choice. Even in cases where it turns out that you could have made a better decision, you’ll now have more data to incorporate into your future choices.
- Get enough sleep. Research has shown that when people do not get enough sleep, they struggle to integrate information. Without this integration, it is difficult to make sound, quick decisions. Sleep helps boost the health and efficiency of connections in the brain and facilitates communication. When you get adequate sleep, you make it easier for the parts of your brain that support slow thinking and the parts of your brain that support fast thinking to interact, share information, and optimize decision-making.
Decisiveness can not only make us appear happy, healthy, and competent. It can also make us feel that way. Ultimately, the best way to achieve the benefits of decisiveness is to become more decisive by enhancing your confidence in your ability to make decisions, and in those decisions themselves.
Harrison Monarth is a certified NeuroLeadership Coach. He is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO.