Decisions, decisions, decisions — they make up the foundation of our life. Each of us makes hundreds, perhaps even thousands of them every day. They range from simple to complex, from mundane to exhilarating, even life altering.  Without decisions, there would be no action because they are the bridge between our thoughts and emotions, and taking action.

As central and important as decisions are to our work and life overall, one would think they would be fairly easy to make error free. Actually most of them are: what time should I get up, what should I eat, when should I leave for work, which way should I take to work, what lane should I be in, where should I park, etc., etc.  Many of these are made with little if any conscious thought. If we had to think about every decision, consider every option, the pro’s and con’s, we would be paralyzed.

Without careful thought and consideration, however, we are more prone to fall prey to one or more of the following decision errors. The list of theories is from

  1. Ambiguity Effect: We prefer a known probability to an unknown one.
  2. Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic: We base estimates on known anchors.
  3. Availability Heuristic: Recent events seem more likely.
  4. Bias Blind Spot: We do not compensate enough for our own bias.
  5. Bias Correction: Well-meaning over-compensation.
  6. Biased sampling: We base decisions on available small samples.
  7. Bounded Rationality: We only use limited logic in decisions.
  8. Conjunction Fallacy: An overlap seems twice as likely.
  9. Disconfirmation bias: Agreeing with what supports beliefs and vice versa.
  10. Endowment Effect: We value more highly the things we own.
  11. Focusing Effect: We pay more attention to some things than others.
  12. Gambler’s Fallacy: Belief we can predict random events.
  13. Hot Hand Phenomenon: Assuming success breeds success.
  14. Illusory Correlation: We see correlation where it is not.
  15. Mere Thought Effect: Thinking creates polarization.
  16. Mood-Congruent Judgment: Our moods bias our judgments.
  17. Neglect of probability bias: Ignoring probability; assuming certainty.
  18. Overconfidence Barrier: We are too confident in our own judgments.
  19. Prospect Theory: We value certain gains and try to avoid certain losses.
  20. Psychological Accounting: We care about direct outcomes. We also compare in ratios rather than absolute amounts.
  21. Representativeness Heuristic: We guess probability from a ‘comparable’ event.
  22. Restraint Bias: Assuming we can control urges.
  23. Social Judgment Theory: We vary our judgments about an anchor position.
  24. Sunk-Cost Effect: We are reluctant to pull out of an investment.

So what’s a person to do?  How about use a second language?

According to the Association for Psychological Science, the journal article, “The Foreign-Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases” suggests just that thing.

“Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that people make more analytic decisions when they think through a problem in their non-native tongue.  These findings have implications in many arenas but especially for people doing business in a global economy.”  The article can be found in the April issue of Psychological Science,

According to lead writer, Boaz Keysar, a University of Chicago psychologist, “cognitive biases such as loss aversion are deeply emotional responses, and understanding a second language requires conscious thought in a way that processing our native tongue doesn’t. Because we have to think more to make sense of the question when it’s in a foreign language, we automatically think carefully about the answer—we don’t just answer based on our cognitive biases.”

There should, however, be a caveat here.  A large body of evidence shows that emotions are extremely important in making good decisions.  If instincts or gut feelings that result from our experience are excluded through strict logic or critical thinking, the quality of the decision may well be in jeopardy.  In my experience, I have never seen an organization promote “integrated decision making,” which appears to be critical to success.

So, in the absence of integrated decision making, perhaps we would do just as well using the Christie-Davies Theorem.

 “If your facts are wrong but your logic is perfect, then your conclusions are inevitably false. Therefore, by making mistakes in your logic, you have at least a random chance of coming to a correct conclusion.”

~ John Christopher Davies (Emeritus Professor University of Reading, UK)


Hocus Focus?

Posted: February 26, 2012 in Performance, Purpose & Direction

There is nothing magic about high performance.  The best performers I know have a number of characteristics in common; one of them is the ability to concentrate.  When I say concentrate, I mean paying attention to the right thing at the right time in the right way.

The “right thing” is pretty straightforward.  It is the most important thing that will help someone, or an organization, achieve the most important outcomes or objectives.  The “right time” is similar, when to pay attention is critical when it comes to prioritizing and sequencing.

So that leaves in the “right way.”  Years ago Psychologist Bob Nideffer observed in the performance of athletes that there are different types of concentration or attention styles. As he continued to study the attention styles of athletes, he realized that attention occurred in different forms or channels and that ability to use the right channel at the right time made the difference in high performance. To explain these differences he used two axes, broad/narrow and external/internal, resulting in four combinations:

1. Broad Internal:  conceptual, strategic, analytical

2. Broad External:  awareness of the environment or surroundings

3. Narrow Internal:  problem solving, mental imagery

4. Narrow external: physical execution and follow-through

Each of us tends to prefer one channel over the other even though we use all four at different times.  You probably had a sense of the one or two styles you most prefer as you read through the abbreviated list.

A great example of concentration styles is a safety issue that has gained much attention in the last few years – texting on the cell phone while driving.  The most important channel for driving safely is external awareness.  Because we cannot tune into more than one channel at a time, just like the radio or TV, any other misplaced concentration style can be detrimental, even deadly.  Texting requires narrow focused attention, both internal and external. The person who believes he or she can quickly switch between styles and safely operate a vehicle is gravely mistaken.

There is nothing magic about high performance (I think we can also add safe performance to that statement).  It’s a matter of deciding what’s the most important thing you need to focus on to achieve the results you want and having the ability to use the right concentration style at the right time.

Incite:  When in doubt, ask yourself “Why am I doing what I’m doing right now?”

“No Coke…Pepsi!”

The iconic phrase made popular on Saturday Night Live in 1978 by John Belushi as Pete Dionasopolis, owner of the Olympia Café illustrates the length of the ongoing rivalry between the two flagship soft drinks.

You may have seen the television add where PepsiCo claims that people prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke in blind taste tests.  Yet Coca-Cola’s commercials claim that people prefer the taste of Coke.  So who’s right?  As it turns out, both are correct but it depends on how the test is conducted. PepsiCo used a blind test taste while Coca-Cola let people see the name of the product they were drinking.

“To better understand the Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry, a group of neuroscientists conducted their own taste tests — only this time, the participants were tested in a magnetic resonance imaging machine so their brain activity could be monitored throughout the test. Duke Professor Dan Ariely notes in his book PredictablyIrrational, when the participants received a drink, they were presented with visual information indicating either that Coke, Pepsi, or an unknown drink was coming. This way the researchers could record and compare observations under all of the different scenarios.

So what were the results? It turns out that the brain activity of participants did indeed vary depending on whether or not the drink’s brand was revealed. When participants weren’t informed of the brand, only the center part of their brain was activated, which is associated with strong feelings of emotional connection. When the participants were informed of the brand, however, something additional happened. This time, the frontal area of the brain controlling memory, associations, and higher-order cognition was also activated — not coincidentally, the frontal lobe is also closely linked to the brain’s pleasure center. And the response was strongest when they were drinking Coke, indicating that most people do in fact prefer Coke over Pepsi, but only if they know which is which ahead of time.” (Excerpted from Profiting from the Irrationality of Others,  John Maxfield, The Motley Fool, Dec. 7, 2011)

So what is the significance of this discovery in leadership and organizations? For one, the discovery illustrates the importance of “memory, associations, and higher-order cognition” in decision making. While decisions are commonly perceived as rational, memory from past experiences provide a powerful influence. Termed as irrational by some, I believe it is actually non-rational thought, which is not obviously rational versus being against rational.

One of my favorite examples is when I hear executives make statements such as “people are too risk averse…it’s okay to fail…we need to learn from our mistakes…employees need to take more risks.”  To understand risk aversion, all you need to do is reflect on your own past experiences.  As a child, a student, an athlete, an employee – how many times were your mistakes or failures associated with positive emotions and feelings versus negative ones?  It is the power of these memories, whether conscious or not, that truly impact the decisions we make.

Incite: What other examples of decisions or behaviors can you think of that are affected by past memories and their associated emotions?  Giving feedback, speaking up in meetings, confronting bad behavior?

Learning and development is an essential life-long pursuit whether for professional or personal reasons.

According to neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, after spending its early life traveling through the ocean learning and developing (okay, I added that part), the Sea Squirt eventually implants itself on a rock for life.

The first thing it does is digest its own brain and nervous system for food.

Why? It no longer needs them.

I heard Tom Peters proclaim this, without the question mark, in early 1996 while attending a conference in town.  It was intriguing and thought provoking.  When you’re a thought leader and helping launch a new magazine called Fast Company (2nd issue), you can say things like that.  His point was to hire people that are different, even very different than you.   On the surface it sounds like an interesting idea.

In my last post I talked about “surface-level” diversity, which refers to observable differences.   In contrast, “deep-level” diversity refers to attributes that are less obvious but can be inferred over time after more direct experience.   My simple personal model encompasses the following categories in descending order: thinking style, personality, and beliefs and values.   Unlike observable differences, the negative effects of these differences appear to increase over time.

Arguing about how to do something (task conflict) is usually the result of competing thinking styles, frames of reference, and past experiences.  If managed well, this conflict can result in a better way to do to things.

Not getting along is a different matter.  Personality conflicts, clashes, incompatibility, whatever you want to call it, is much more difficult to manage.  Relationship conflicts can create more severe problems and ultimately result in reduced effectiveness.

Seldom is there a simple explanation for conflict.  Throw in beliefs and values and things can really heat up.  Next time you have a meeting; try using some of these topics for icebreakers: politics, religion, capital punishment, or abortion.

People naturally avoid stress and anxiety (not to mention fear), especially leaders.  That’s why Rosabeth M. Kanter stated in Men and Women of the Organization that leaders create other leaders in their own image.

Tim Cook and Steve Jobs

Do organizations really want deep differences?  If you consider that most organizations have a set of corporate values they want people to adhere to, the answer becomes more obvious.  The phrase “organizational fit” is even more revealing.  If deep differences were really desirable, the phrase “fit” wouldn’t exist.

Okay Tom Peters. I’m sorry to say that while telling people to hire other people who scare them is provocative, in practice, it‘s unrealistic,  impractical, and really kind of scary.

From Layoutsparks.comOf course my favorite answer is “it depends.”   There is no shortage of phrases or statements on company websites that promote the benefits of differences in the workforce. To be effective and realize the benefits though, the workplace needs to have programs and processes in place to leverage these differences. More simply said, a diverse workforce also requires inclusive workplace.

So what differences are we talking about?   While various descriptors can be found on company websites, the best measure of desired differences shows up in hiring practices. Based on my own experience, the primary focus areas are Male/Female and White/Minority.  Even  though some Equal Opportunity Employer statements are very specific:  “…race, religion, color, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status, veteran status or other legally protected characteristics;”  I have never seen targets that include religion, marital status, sexual orientation, or any other less obvious characteristic.

Okay, so in an attempt to hire and promote a diverse workforce, organizations use “surface-level diversity” factors, which refer to observable attributes.  Even using only these two factors, probabilities kick in to encompass differences in the less apparent  factors.

So what difference do these surface-level differences make?  Below are some of the advantages and challenges. I say “some” because it is not an all-inclusive list.

Surface-Level Diversity Differences



  • Their existence provides evidence of equal opportunity employment practices.
  • Potential hires view the organization as more representative.
  • When addressing more complex tasks and problems, the differing viewpoints, ideas, experiences, etc., can provide higher quality solutions.

Note: Knowledge work has been on the rise for quite some time resulting in more complex work.

  • Based on similarity-difference issues, teams in their early stages may feel a negative impact, but these tend to disappear as members learn more about each other.
  • When addressing simple problems or tasks, the broad range of viewpoints becomes more of a hindrance.
  • Fault lines can occur in diverse groups when informal subgroups form based on similarities.  Research has shown that the potentially detrimental effects of subgroups can be offset with training and awareness that teams may benefit from their diversity.

I talked with an HR Director in a US company who was concerned about a group of male Chinese scientists and technical professionals that continually hung out together in the research facility and only spoke their language.  So, is this good or bad?  A better question may be “In what ways in this good and bad?   It’s not the intent of this post to answer that question, but rather to incite thinking about how to discern the positive and negative impacts of surface-level differences.

There are numerous models that demonstrate the range and depth of differences in individuals.  I chose to use the “text book” terms of surface-level and deep-level diversity for simplicity.  In part 2, we’ll explore the latter and how those differences are viewed. What do you think, “desirable or not?”

Signs of Defending the Status Quo

Posted: August 30, 2011 in Change

Once again Seth Godin stimulated my thinking for another post. His original post can be accessed here, The warning signs of defending the status quo.    While working recently on a significant change initiative, I was surprised by the number of signs I encountered that could be interpreted as defending the status quo.  A number of them are included in the list below, which is loosely adapted from Seth’s.

When confronted with a new idea or opportunity for change, do others (or you):

  • Focus on the one or two things that could go wrong instead of emphasizing the things that will likely go right? …the risk assessment
  • Highlight the discomfort or exclusion of a few instead of the benefits for the many?
  • Slow implementation and decision making down instead of speeding it up?
  • Emphasize past or existing policies and believe they can’t be changed?
  • Undermine the credibility, authority or experience of people behind or supporting the change?
  • Complain about those that do something different when it appears to be against policy, even when the “policy” doesn’t actually exist?
  • Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits?
  • Focus on policies instead of principles?

Calling it out, or naming it, when you see it may help make it visible to others. The bigger question may be, “Why are these signs showing up in my work?”  Is it possible that I am also showing signs of defending the status quo — my own?  I’m not quite sure yet,  how about you?