Making good decisions in difficult situations

Making good decisions in difficult situations

People do not like making decisions, that is why we all have our routines, and little personal rules and foibles, so we already have default options for all the decisions we expect to face.

This works well, you are not reinventing the world every day, that would be exhausting, you are following your routine, free to focus on performing to your best.

However there are difficult situations;
  • boiling frog situations - it is said that if you put a frog in a cold pan of water, then slowly bring it to the boil, the frog will never jump out, because the change is too gradual.
  • radically new situations - situations that are clearly out of the ordinary, where you have no precedents, or personal experience of what is likely to be a good decision, or what will be a bad one. Most emergencies contain an element of this.
  • time pressured decisions - these are where you are given less time that you are comfortable with to make a decision. Salesmen use this technique to pressure you into making a decision.
  • peer pressure situations - when everyone else apparently behaves in a certain way, it is very difficult to make a contrary decision.
  • inability to understand - you are being presented with information, you don't understand it but you don't know how significant it is.
  • stressed times - stress, extreme emotion, tiredness, drink, extreme recent events, all these can alter the prism through which we view the world, and make it difficult to think as you normally would. We tend to over emphasize the significance of recent events.

To throw in some examples:
  • it is the middle of the night, you smell smoke, do you investigate or go back to sleep.
  • you have been working steadily increasing hours, and are offered some extra work that might get you promoted. Do you say yes or no? Is there another option?
  • the policeman quickly explains your rights and is keen to get on with the interview, did you understand them, or do you ask him to explain them to you again slowly?
  • after a morning of negotiating the salesman can offer you a deal today, only, on the car you were looking at, but it is not quite the model you wanted. Do you buy it, or do you walk away?
  • everyone says buy housing, you would be mad not to. Do you buy a house you cannot really afford?
  • your boss has just given you a reprimand, then a colleague asks you for some help with something that they have left to the last minute. Do you give them a piece of you mind, it will make you feel better?

Hopefully you can identify that you face a difficult decision, and the elements that make it difficult. You are in an unfamiliar environment and cannot rely on experience, your judgement is likely to be impaired, you are under pressure to make a decision that suits others, or others are already making.

But what is right for the long term.

Consider risk, balance the short term cost/benefit to you, against the long term cost/benefit.

So humiliating your colleague would be gratifying now, but the long term consequences might not be great. So investigating that smell of smoke is tiresome, but it could save your life. It is well worth enduring small short term costs, if there is any risk of a serious long term downside. If inaction could cost you your life, you need to do something.

Where possible do early research, and decide on key issues in advance, even if they are quite arbitrary, pay no more than X for a car, wait an extra fifteen minutes for you date, then try phoning.

Always distrust being pressured to make a decision, either by others, or by your own emotional investment in your previous decisions, or your self image. So if you are being time pressured, often it is to make a bad decision. If you are getting the hard sell, then often it is not a good decision for you. You always need to be willing to walk away, no matter how much you have invested. So you have spent a morning chatting to that car salesman, but he cannot offer you the car you want. Be willing to walk away. You are a savvy investor but you have lost lots of money on a share that has fallen in value, do you invest in more, to reduce your average purchase price, or is that throwing good money after bad.

If you don't understand something, insist that it is explained in terms you do understand. It is their job to communicate effectively and clearly, it is not your job to speculate what jargon and technical terms might mean. Just because something seems familiar, does not mean you really understand it, if it is important, get it explained, don't stop asking until you understand. Agreeing to things you do not understand is never the smart option.

Give yourself time to make a decision, presented with a big decision, ask for time to sleep on it, or discuss it with your partner. Ask them to explain again anything you do not understand. Distrust evasiveness and pressure. Walk away from people you do not trust or respect. Don't spend time or money on incompetent people, businesses, products, or processes, walk away.

Create a mechanism to get a wider perspective. Often these situations trade on you not being able to step back. A five minute break in a difficult meeting can make the world of difference, a walk at lunch time, walking the dog, chatting to some people about something completely different.

Listen to other views, especially if they contradict your own. Think about what they say.

Be willing to do some research if you don't know enough. Offered your dream job, check out with some people working there what it is actually like. Check out reviews for that new computer you have your eye on, do the people that own one, really rate it so much.

At the start of this posting I outlined how people avoid making decisions, but I omitted the biggest single way that people avoid making decisions. People just copy what everyone else does. We all do it all the time. But making good decisions in difficult times relies on being awkward, putting in the research, asking difficult decisions, being willing to swim against the tide. Better to be the first person on the lifeboat when the boat is not sinking, than arriving just in time to see the last lifeboat leaving.

Be prepared to stand out from the crowd on occasion, honestly being slightly embarrassed is not the biggest risk we face.