15 Aug 2012 Back

Decision-making and Certainty

Brain Gain - Certainty and Decision-MakingBRAIN GAIN: Learning to be certain about uncertainty is a great executive aid – and a leader’s brain needs training to do that...

Decisions, decisions, decisions.  All day, every day.  It’s what executives are paid for, isn’t it?  But how do the people who are doing the paying really know what they are getting?  And how do the people who are making the decisions understand their own decision processes?

When asked, after twenty-two years of psychoanalysis, how it was going, Woody Allen replied: “Slowly”.   That special brand of self-deprecating humour that he evinces all the time makes a self-evident fact to him becomes a source of amusement to someone else.  Same information, different reactions.  Information is continuously qualified by the reactions of the recipient.   It’s the way we see things, stupid.

In our heads there is a constant interpreter, making sense of experience as best it might but always post hoc.  By definition it is not possible to make sense of events that have not happened, at least in imagination; which is why the unknown is so totally unknown and why, until the brain has been well-developed, the unknown cannot be imagined at all.

Up to the age of three years children have no sense of a future at all.  That is partly because the part of the brain that gets a time-sequential clock running is only starting to establish itself then it takes another five years or so for it to become fully effective - which is one reason why so many people seem to have very poor memory of large chunks of their childhood: and partly because the capacity to imagine and operate ‘cause-effect’ relationships is a brain function where complex connections in the frontal lobes – the consciously executive area of the brain – have to have been well-established.

Teen years are a period when these frontal lobe connections are beginning to evolve into the sculpted adult brain.  If by the age of twenty-four or thereabouts a mix of education and life experience do not create the complex frontal pathways that make for effective decision-making then they are never properly established at all.   Poor educational systems are a very effective way of producing poor brains.

The impulsivity that happens in teen years – crazy, on-the-spot actions that more reflection that might have altered into better decisions but did not because more reflection had not yet been built-in; making mistakes and finding out how to come out on the other side of error is part of the way reflection is built up. This is one of the signs of a brain still in formation. 

So what is any leader to do about their decision-making capacity? As well as understanding that crucial capacity in the expensive brains that walk into their offices on two legs every day?

The first is to know that what the left-hand side of the brain is especially good at is making up an intelligent story to make sense of whatever is the data to hand. The brain hates non-sense.  What the brain wants to do all the time is make the best sense it can of whatever are the circumstances in which it finds itself, for then it has the basis for predicting: and one measure of adult life success is the capacity to predict well and have the predictions verified – or create the conditions that turn prediction into self-fulfilling prophecy, which is what good management is really about.  So a great deal of what a leader will hear is someone else’s best story.

The second is to know that, where there are gaps in the data, the brain will do its best to fill in the gaps with anything it can to justify the development of its own certainty.  Alas, there is nothing of greater hindrance to good leadership than great certainty when such certainty is poorly founded but pursued with great purpose.

The third is to know that being humble is a great virtue as it keeps the brain flexibly open to data from any source: and so decision-making might be vastly improved by an attitude which stems fundamentally from not knowing, being conscious of not knowing, and keeping the creative right brain engaged.  In such a way other brains and their data can impinge upon a leader’s brain.  Then high trust relationships are formed and that increases the quality of the decision-making process.

Leaders are all the time having to make decisions under highly imperfect conditions of uncertainty: and becoming a leader usually requires a major mind shift from a career path that has stressed achievement through certainty.  Learning to be certain about uncertainty is a great executive aid – and a leader’s brain needs training to do that.

Dr Paul Brown is Head of the Psychology and Applied Neuroscience Unit within the Office of Government, Lao PDR.   He was previously Visiting Professor in Organisational Neuroscience at London South Bank University and in Individual and Organisational Psychology, The Nottingham Law School.  He maintains an international consulting practice in Europe, America and Asia and is part of Montydog Consulting. /

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