3 Surprising Ways Executives Make Their Best Decisions

Neuroimaging is dispelling some of the more commonly held beliefs about how executives make the best decisions. As it turns out, most decisions involve more emotion and intuition than logic, and deadlines — which many people call helpful — actually stifle thought processes.   

Neuroimaging lets researchers see how people's brains react to situations and maps where activity is occurring in the brain. This work is still in its early stages, but a Wall Street Journal report shared some of the findings on how leaders make good choices. It's a fascinating article, as the studies delve into processes that leaders cannot explain themselves. It also dispels some myths about what makes for the best senior-level thinking — myths that have become engrained in executive and workplace culture.

Here are three of the key takeaways.

1. Deadlines often lead to worse decision making. Many people say they work better under pressure and that deadlines increase their focus, but neuroimaging suggests otherwise. Deadlines increase our urgency and stress levels, which ramp up activity in the "task positive" network of the brain used for problem-solving. This means the more stressful the deadline, the harder time we have approaching different solutions.

Richard Boyatzis, PhD, a professor in the departments of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, put it this way: "The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can't even see the box."

It's tough to think of a business that could survive, much less thrive, sans deadlines. It's just not realistic. Instead, experts suggest organizations help employees and leaders reduce stress and access the creative parts of their brains when under pressure. Exercises like meditation, in which the mind wanders, encourage creativity.

2. Feelings of uncertainty undermine decisions. A study has shown feelings of uncertainty activated brain centers associated with anxiety and disgust, or more frankly, "doom and gloom." The study showed 75 percent of people in uncertain situations mistakenly predicted bad things would happen, so decisions made in this state of mind "could turn out to be exactly the wrong moves," according to the report.

Leaders working in uncertain times — a description that applies to all in healthcare — may be hesitant to hire new staff or invest in new equipment, for example, even though these things would help the company gain ground on its competition.   

Experts suggest leaders learn to accept the uncertainty that comes with their work, and to be aware that their responses are likely exaggerated. Reframing issues in positive terms can mitigate doom-and-gloom decision making.

3. Facts aren't more important than emotions. The relationship between emotions and cold, hard logic has long been tense in the world of business. The prototype of a top business executive is one who cuts through social and emotional thinking to get to the facts, but research suggests the best leaders seem to depend on their emotions much more than logic.

As part of a study from Emory University in Atlanta, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of midcareer executives while they made recommendations for a set of management scenarios. Researchers expected to see the most activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is known for its involvement in logical reasoning. There was activity there, but areas of the brain responsible for social and emotional thinking actually ended up being dominant.  

"The potential conclusion is that people who are good at strategy are better at sensing or feeling their way through strategies, rather than relying only on logic and being rational," David Rock, co-founder and director of Australian research organization NeuroLeadership Institute, said in the report. Strong social thinking lets leaders assess problems from someone else's perspective, and that is just as important as analytical abilities, the research suggested.

The difficulty here is that many people have a hard time switching back and forth from their social and analytical modes of thought. Simple reminders to do so can help. For instance, if leaders are aware of their tendency to get caught up in numbers or statistics in meetings, they can make reminders to themselves "to take the social temperature of the room at regular intervals," according to the report.


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