Every decision we make requires us to size up a situation.
Sometimes we have the benefit of empirical data. But often, we rely on a combination of experience, expectations, assumptions and — because we’re human — a little emotion.
Here are some examples:
- You’ve applied for a job. The interview seemed to go well. Four days have passed and you’ve heard nothing. You’re assuming that you’ve lost out.
- One of your reporters checks in with you repeatedly to make sure his story is on track, far more than others with the same tenure. You’ve tried to nudge him toward more self-sufficiency, but his habits don’t change. You’re beginning to think he just wants you to do his work rather than grow.
- You got the promotion that you and a colleague applied for – and now you supervise her. She doesn’t seem to take a lot of initiative in team meetings. You suspect her behavior is rooted in resentment about your promotion.
Here’s the problem: When we operate on educated guesses, heuristics and our gut, there’s a good chance we’re wrong.
The delay in hearing back after an interview could be caused by a postponed committee meeting. Or a hiring manager trying to pitch the finance VP for more money for you.
The reporter who checks in too much may still carry the sting of a past criticism by you or someone else and fear making an error. He may not believe you trust him, even though you think you’ve made it clear that you do.
Your colleague who’s relatively passive in meetings may be at peace with your promotion but bored in her current role. She may have something going on in her personal life.
Unless we’re willing to imagine other logical possibilities, we hinder our ability to lead.
We operate on impulse or assumption, which isn’t fair to others or ourselves.
In a book I recommend, “Decisive” by Chip and Dan Heath, the writers argue that we can get beyond biases and narrow thinking by using what they call the WRAP process:
- Widen your options.
- Reality-test your assumptions.
- Attain distance before deciding.
- Prepare to be wrong.
This is why it helps to get coaching from colleagues and be a coach for others. Frankly, this is how I spend a good deal of my time: Either coaching people or teaching others to coach by asking the kinds of questions and using the critical thinking skills that help people get past biases, fears, and assumptions to make better decisions.
The job of the coach is to help people widen their lens and discover a range of options.
But we don’t always have a coach nearby. So we need to challenge ourselves.
There’s a simple way to do that. Make this commitment: When you think you know why someone is doing something, especially something you don’t like, think again. Consider at least two other plausible motives or rationales for their behavior. (This is consistent with my friend and former Poynter colleague Bob Steele’s teaching on ethical decision-making: Identify at least three good options.)
It could save you a lot of stress, help you make better decisions, and lead more effectively.