How to Listen and Respond for Better Decisions

Catch the Error in the Message

Decision-making in management teams is a group process: that means that error making can get quadratic proportions. One manager brings faulty facts to the table, that get misinterpreted by another, and a third is biased in his opinion. It's a miracle that so many decisions go right.

It's tough to listen, fact-check, assumption-bust, bias-buffer, and think of an answer at the same time. Unintentionally, errors slip in. Knowing more about how we decide has changed the way I participate in discussions. I listen for different cues and I give more insight into my trains of thought when I reply, so that others can follow and help me 'get' it. 

I thought that maybe your executive decision-making could profit from my experience, so read on if you want to know how you can listen and respond for better decisions and why. Let's start with the why.

Why Experts Can Decide Faster and More Accurate

There is this famous experiment with Ronaldo scoring goals in the dark while others couldn't even guess the ball's trajectory. For the life of him, Ronaldo couldn't tell you why and how. He "just" scored.

They made a video of Ronaldo scoring in the dark and its amazing. Watch it in its entirety if you have time or go to the bit where Ronaldo scores in the dark at 20:30 minutes.

How to Predict Ball Trajectory

The high speed of soccer frequently leaves very little time for decision-making. So, players have to deduce the direction of the ball as early as possible. Expert players can make earlier and more precise predictions on ball trajectories, based on the posture of their opponents. This skill is known as the advance cue usage.

Watch Ronaldo Score in the Dark (20:30")

Snake ~ J U M P !

Or when your name is Ronaldo: see opponent ~ know trajectory. Wow, right?

Scientists have tried to find  out how Ronaldo does it (here is the paper). This type of reflex-like decision-making is hard to explore, because the response action is taken before the decision has reached consciousness. It's not a deliberate process, but more like the rules of thumb all of us, executives included, develop. Rules like: "A broker must generate sales of ten times his salary", or " Use less than 10% of the credit that's available to you". We call those rules of thumb heuristics.

Heuristics Outperform Deliberations

People use heuristics for extremely fast, reflex-like decision-making. We develop heuristics on experiences of success and failure. The grounding of rules in actual experience usually ensures that heuristic decision-making is just as accurate as and a lot faster than the more rational deliberations we tend to favor. That's why successful executives are reinforced time and again to use their gut-feeling. Gut-feeling being the pre-conscious use of heuristics; a very advanced stage of the same advance cue usage that Ronaldo exhibited in the video.

When Not to Trust Your Gut (Missing Cues)

Rules of thumb can go awry in situations where information is missing, hidden, or misinterpreted. Incomplete information sets us off wrong. Like it wouldn't make sense to jump near a sleeping snake for you might wake him. This is what happens:

  • We catch a glimpse of the situation and recognize a familiar cue (snake shape)
  • The heuristics kick in (jump)
  • Unpleasant surprise (snake  wakes up and bites)
  • We find out that we started from a wrong assumption, because the cue did not tell the whole story (we missed that the snake was asleep)
heuristic going wrong

When Not to Trust Your Gut (Bias)

If you have a tendency to jump at every snake-like shape, you would have a snake-jump bias. Many similar judgment biases exist in the executive world. 

Being biased does not mean that you make bad decisions. However, the odds are that you will when you don't pay attention. Consider this biased heuristic: the more you hear about a certain trend, the more important you think it is (availability bias).

But hearing about a trend from multiple sources can also mean that media are parroting each other. This is the problem with fake news on social media,  with industry rumors, and with any professional who does not check her sources.

When Not to Trust Your Gut (Freudian Slips)

At a retail conference, I heard a speaker declare that we'd have to follow his advice because many others had done so. That we'd have to change because he'd seen a trend manifest itself so often. That media agreed with him. It's like buying a red car because many people do and the salesperson thinks it good advice since he has seen it advertised so often. I mean, really. (My apologies to red car owners; red's awesome).

I don't want to ridicule the speaker involved, absolutely not. I know that my own heuristics and biases shine through my keynote as well. But because I am aware of this, I never tell you what to do. I do ask you to think critically before you act. Rules of thumb do serve a purpose. But not blindly, that's the point.

I Dare You to Listen for Missing Cues, Bias, and Freudian Slips

I'm asking you to question what you hear a little more. I dare you: Tomorrow, in your car to work, listen to the news closely. Put your detective ears on and listen to how people talk, not to what they try to convey. Train those ears with these three observational questions:

  • What words does the reporter use to prove a point? Does he use words like many, often, or always? Or does he present data?
  • Is the reporter clear on the meaning of percentages as evidence? For example: 20% chance of rain. What does that mean? (find out at the bottom of the article)
    • Rain on 20% of the forecast period?
    • Rain during 20% of the day in the whole country?
    • All day, but only in 20% of the country?
    • Rain on 20% of the days with exactly the same atmospheric conditions?
    • Or 80 percent chance there will be no rain anywhere in the forecast area?
  • Does the reporter or interviewee give an opinion as if it were a fact, or can you follow his reasoning? Find out by cutting up the statement in causes and effects. Are cause and effect directly and clearly related or are bits and pieces missing? 
    • Here is an example of a direct and clear relationship: traffic is heavily congested (cause) --- I will be delayed (effect)
    • Compare a cause and effect statement with missing rules: bright sun, low in the sky (cause) --- I will be delayed (effect). What's missing? Glare in drivers' eyes, causing braking, causing heavy traffic. Lot's of hidden assumptions that we can't check

My Best Advice: Take a Second Before Responding

I hope that you do the radio news listening exercise. When you do, you get an immediate and deep understanding of the ease with which we take a message for granted and subsequently lead ourselves into erroneous decision-making.

I've got another quick fix besides honing your ears: to take a second before responding. That second is enough to know if you can go with your gut or not. If you're not sure, then start taking apart the argument as you did in the radio exercise. I'm convinced that you'll save yourself valuable time by deciding right the first time around

The right interpretation of 20% chance of rain were the last two points. These actually have the same meaning. Surprised?

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