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Decision Making: First Installment

This blog entry is one of a series that I plan to share with you about Decision Making.  It is a topic that has garnered a lot of attention during the past 20 years.

Interestingly, when we started the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program in 1995, and included in our curriculum a course entitled, “Leadership and Decision Making,” not a lot of literature and materials about this subject existed.  So, we used the best of what was published and created a lot of our own content.  Over the years, we revised the course a number of times as new resources became available. Now, I have shelves of texts and stacks of articles on the topic of decision making.

Another interesting factoid–two Noble Prize laureates, Herbert Simon and Daniel Kahneman, did their award-winning work on decision making.

No question about it.  Decision making is important, particularly for the effective practice of leadership.

Over the years, I have discovered a lot of significant takes on this issue and I hope this blog and the ones to follow will provide some new insights for you.  Here is the first one.

Unconscious, cognitive biases can impede and derail our ability to make quality decisions.  Authors Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, based on their study of decision neuroscience, offer that our brains use the process of “pattern recognition” and “emotional tagging” to make decisions.  Often, this process is effective.  But, at times this process can be distorted by self interest, emotional attachments, and misleading memories.  The following points help explain what the authors mean:

  1. We use Pattern Recognition, an intricate method that the brain (from 30 various sections) uses, to help us make sense of information from our experiences.

  2. Over time, these experiences create assumptions about these experiences.

  3. Then, we make decisions based on those assumptions when we face new situations.

  4. When these new situations look similar to past experiences, we decide based on those assumptions, believing that we understand what is going on. A lot of times, this works.

  5. Unfortunately, our assessment of a new situation, based on pattern recognition assumptions, may be wrong.  In these cases, we can make the wrong decision because we think (unconsciously) we know the dynamic of the issue when in actuality something else is really happening.

  6. Emotional Tagging refers to the way our brain attaches emotional information to our thoughts and experiences that are accumulated in our memories.

  7. This emotional information tells us (again unconsciously) which information to pay attention to or not, and what action we should consider when encountering new situations.

  8. Yet again, emotional tagging can be helpful in making quality decisions, but it can also trip us up if it distorts our ability to objectively assess the information relevant to a new situation.

The authors point to three “Red Flags” they believe can distort our emotional tags and lead us to see false patterns.  These are:

  1. The presence of Inappropriate Self Interest–the bias that affects the emotional importance we place on information and the patterns we want to see.

  2. The presence of Distorting Attachments–our attachments to people, places, and things that can affect our judgment about information we receive and what action to take.

  3. The presence of Misleading Memories–memories (and the assumptions-patterns)that seem relevant to a current situation but are false and lead us down the wrong path of decision making, overlooking important information along the way.

What to do about limiting the effects of these “Red Flags?”  The authors offer this advice:

  1. Inject fresh experience or analysis.

  2. Introduce further debate and challenge.

  3. Impose stronger governance in terms of identifying someone higher in authority who is ultimately responsible to make a decision.

Accordingly, be aware of how Pattern Recognition and Emotional Tagging work, for good and bad, when it come to making quality decisions.  And, consider how you can be on watch for their effects as you analyze new situations. It is your responsibility as a leader.

Seek wisdom as you decide,

Jim Dittmar

Dr. James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute which began in 2014.  Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Or


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