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Leading with purpose: 3 strategies for managing decision risk

May 24, 2017 Paula Butte

You’re initiating a change and focusing on what’s ahead. As you’re planning the process to get there, you realize you don’t have the buy-in you need. You deal with what you interpret as “resistance to change.” You address resistance as best as you can, based on your own knowledge and understanding of the situation and the people affected by the change. But sometimes, your attempts fall short.

Recently, I was asked to help one of my financial clients analyze why a group of their senior mortgage brokers weren’t adopting a new technology platform. This new system was easy to use and would help the organization increase productivity and improve customer conversations. It represented a significant investment of time and resources.

I started the conversation by asking, “Why are you labeling this as resistance? What behaviors are causing you to come to that conclusion?”

They were quick to share that the brokers, who are top producers and had been with the company for years, were only working with the old system. They also stressed, “Like people of their generation, they resist when they’re asked to use new technology.

Hmmm. Interesting. So then I asked, “What happens to them when they ‘stick’ with the old system?”

  • “They’re scolded.”
  • “They’re sent for more training.”
  • “They stay comfortable using what they know.”

Then, I heard someone in the back of the room mutter under their breath, “They get to still be gurus.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

“We all know the old system is hard to use and these guys are experts on it. Everyone goes to them to learn and to troubleshoot. These guys are called ‘gurus’ and they’re proud of that.”

I continued, “So, when the new system is fully in, they’ll lose guru status?” “Absolutely,” he replied.

Another said, “I can see that being a great reason for them to stay with the old technology. We should have dug a little deeper before assuming that they would enthusiastically jump on board with this initiative.”

My follow-up conversations with the brokers confirmed the truth. This outdated system, which was a burden to many, represented their knowledge base and their longstanding (and valued) legacy in the organization.

Have you ever made a decision based on an assumption that you later came to regret? Who hasn’t? It feels terrible. And for leaders, it can have a significant and negative impact.

Strategies for purposeful decision making

We each bring our own unique set of life experiences to our roles as leaders. We may have unconscious biases about particular generations or other demographic groups that lead us to jump to the wrong conclusions. This is normal—it’s human nature.

The vast majority of employees come to the workplace wanting to do a good job. During times of change, when we see behaviors that challenge this notion, it’s easy to come to conclusions that have no basis in fact. Here are a few ways to help you avoid common decision errors:

Test your assumptions—out loud

There’s a lot of buzz these days about the phenomenon of cognitive bias and how it can compromise decision making. These cognitive “shortcuts” can cause problems when we’re not aware of them and apply them inappropriately. Leaders need to understand this phenomenon and adjust for it. The bias illustrated in the story above is causation biasthe tendency that we have to assume a cause-and-effect relationship in situations where none exists.

The best leaders make it safe to challenge assumptions by involving others in this process. They identify and share their assumptions and actively seek disconfirming evidence. Intentionally seeking information to determine if an assumption is wrong can lead to more effective decision making and a more collaborative environment.

Make the time to listen—and listen well

In times of change and transition, it’s easy to decide quickly and move forward. Purposeful leaders understand that they need to slow down and seek to understand more, even when it’s painful to do so. That means listening more and getting to the heart of what’s on people’s minds—even when you would really rather speak up and move on. How you listen matters as well. Monitor whether you engage in selective listeninghearing and interpreting only parts of a message that seem relevant to youwhile ignoring or devaluing the rest. If that sounds like you, paraphrase what you’ve just heard and ask for affirmation.

Ask about the why

All behavior is rational to the person doing the behavior. Meet with individual employees 1:1 to learn more about their perspective. What do they stand to lose if they change their behavior? If you come to them with a true intent to understand, they’ll be happy you care and you will learn a lot in the process. This can help you avoid jumping to potentially dangerous conclusions and making the wrong decisions.

So ask yourself: How are you making decisions? Are you jumping to conclusions based on assumptions? What’s the risk? How can you benefit from being more purposeful with your approach to decision making?

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