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How to make stronger leadership decisions in 2019

  • Being aware of how the brain takes shortcuts can help you avoid decision-making traps.
  • When individuals get tired, the automatic and instinctual part of the brain takes over and this more easily leads to cognitive bias.
  • This article outlines some techniques to help you widen and change your decision-making lens.

Leaders are required to make decisions every day, and in a world that is constantly changing and increasingly complex making good decisions is harder than ever. There are competing priorities, multiple perspectives, a myriad of stakeholders, and conflicting demands when balancing short and longer-term interests.

For leaders wanting to elevate their decision making amidst this context, they need to first start with understanding what can inhibit them.

The brain takes shortcuts

Decisions aren’t made on facts alone. They are made on assumptions, feelings and gut reactions.

The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that’s involved in thinking, analysing and reasoning, gets tired easily.

Consequently, the brain, very cleverly, has found a way of conserving energy. It takes short-cuts. A mental short-cut is known as a heuristic. The brain uses heuristics to make big things and complex issues easier to manage and ultimately remember.

As the brain takes in new information it tries to make sense of it, so that it knows what it needs to do. To ease the cognitive load this processing takes, it compresses information and sorts it into patterns. It looks for things that it’s seen or experienced before and goes — ‘I now know what to do’.

Of course, the brain’s shortcutting process isn’t always reliable, and it gives rise to bias in decision making. For example, the brain may expect to see something in a certain way, and so it will seek out information to validate that view. It filters out information that doesn’t fit with its view of the way things should be.

It’s therefore very easy to close your mind to new information that may be relevant and useful in helping you make better decisions.

Be alert to decision-making traps

Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow’ shared his years of research into this field. He explained how the automatic and instinctual part of the brain can lead to cognitive bias, and that people often place too much confidence in their own judgment.

This leads to decision traps such as sunk cost (where due to loss aversion people don’t walk away from something, even when the facts show they should), anchoring (where decisions are influenced by the earliest piece of information received), and others.

These traps are exacerbated when a person is tired.

The brain is like a muscle. When you work out at the gym your muscles get tired and need to be rested. If you want to be at peak performance you get the right balance between ‘working’ your muscles and ‘resting’ them.

It’s the same for your brain. Every time you make a decision you use up precious cognitive resources.

When the brain is tired it more easily takes the path of least resistance, and this is where it gets dangerous. Because taking the path of least resistance means a person is letting expectations and assumptions drive how they think and act. Rather than being conscious and deliberate about the decisions they are making.

Shift your perspective

Perspective is something we rely on every day; often with little thought about the impact it is having on the choices we make. Our perspective on ourselves, others and events ultimately shape thoughts, actions and reactions.

Holding a perspective doesn’t mean it is right, nor is it necessarily wrong. It’s merely a point of view, which means being open to changing the lens is important.

Consider the following approaches in order to shift your lens.

  • Seek regular feedback from people you trust — and that includes people you know will challenge you, and provide it from a place of good intent
  • Be open to different ideas and perspectives — when you hear an idea you don’t like, be curious as to why you don’t like it. Does the idea challenge a perspective of yours? Does it make you think differently in some way?
  • Understand your trigger points — notice when you feel uncomfortable or start to feel anxious, alert or in a different state. What has triggered this feeling or emotional response? Is it a comment, person or event? Are your normally triggered in this way? If so, why is that?
  • Be conscious about the choices you make — when making a decision, stop and reflect on the decision. Is it being made consciously or is it being driven by the automatic part of the brain?
  • Embrace diversity of thought and ideas — seek out people with different backgrounds and ideas as they will open your eyes to different perspectives and experiences

And remember when making a decision, your perspective isn’t necessarily a reality.

Michelle Gibbings can be contacted on (03) 8300 7357 or by email at or via the website at

Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.

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