managemnet company strategy managemanet Why Leaders Should Rethink Their Decision-Making Process

Why Leaders Should Rethink Their Decision-Making Process

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CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

When it comes to making tough decisions, leaders often draw on their experience, whether they’re a consensus builder or a pacesetter, it makes sense for them to do what has worked before. Don’t we all? But today’s guest says, in reality, many leaders fall into traps when they manage problems the same way each time. Because each situation is different.

Organizations evolve and what got you here isn’t necessarily what’s going to get you there. Instead, she argues that successful leaders take a more expansive view of situations at hand. They reevaluate those problems across a broader set of possible solutions and dynamically adapt their management to each problem.

Carol Kauffman is a professor at Harvard Medical School and founded the Institute of Coaching and with David Noble of View Advisors, she wrote the HBR article, “The Power of Options,” and the new book, Real-Time Leadership, Find Your Winning Moves When the Stakes Are High. Carol, thanks for being here.


CURT NICKISCH: Conventional wisdom is that leaders are great at solving problems because they’ve done it before. Isn’t that why experience counts?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Absolutely. You can say maybe 90% of the time, 95% of the time. But when the world is topsy-turvy, what you need is massive agility and the capacity to make space to make a smart choice.

CURT NICKISCH: This is where modus operandi gets its name, your MO, we know what we like to do. People also know how we like to do things, and that helps with predictability. If that works 90% of the time, that actually sounds pretty good to some people.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Well, that’s true unless your life is on the line or your company is on the line, a curveball gets thrown at you. One of the things that really helped us think about this is the Viktor Frankl quote that, “Between every stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is our freedom.” What we try to do in Real-Time Leadership is help people know to make that space, but then what to do in that space. And pattern recognition and default options work a lot of the time, but you have to really be mindfully alert when you got the biggest opportunities- what are the greatest risks facing you.

CURT NICKISCH: You use this term, “Make the space for thinking about this,” people like to get to the response quickly. Why do people always fall back on solving problems the same way? What’s the benefit to that?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Fallback is the perfect word. When we are under stress and high stakes, we become exaggerated versions of ourselves. So if you’re someone who leaps into action, you’re going to immediately leap and you might leap in the wrong direction. But if you’re someone who thinks a lot, you may actually lean back and rely on data for too long and take too much time. And if you’re a natural nurturer, you will take care of people first, and that may be exactly the right thing to do. It’s how do you overcome that automatic default, again, particularly under stress.

CURT NICKISCH: We recognize that it’s handy, but it is a trap, right? Let’s talk a little bit more about creating that space and taking a more expansive view. How do you start to do that?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: In our book we have an acronym and we have an acronym because particularly under stress, we can’t remember things. And this will help. It also helps me remember it. One is when you’re in a situation, how can you make space by being mindfully alert? Then how can you make space by being an options generator? Then to really validate your vantage point, because we tend to believe ourselves too quickly. And then E is how you actually engage and effect change.

CURT NICKISCH: And those spell MOVE – the MOVE framework.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Exactly. So the first one, how to be mindfully alert? That’s noticing. How do you just create a space by noticing? And then noticing what? Most people are one dimensional leaders and we think about three-dimensional leaders. There’s the one who just gets things done and we know those, they’re really brilliant, but they run rough shot over their people, et cetera.

The first dimension of leadership is, what do I need to do? The second one that’s often overlooked is, who do I need to be? What about my inner resources so I can make space and choices? And then the third one is, how do I relate to other people?

And we tend to get it wrong, that one, with the golden rule, treat others as you would want to be treated, as opposed to the platinum rule, treat others as they would want to be treated. So for that to expand your leadership question one, what do you need to do? Question two, who do you need to be? And question three, how do people need me to relate to them?

CURT NICKISCH: Okay, what’s an example on how might you answer those questions then?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: One of the stories that we really love is Matt. Matt was the shoo-in candidate to be a CEO of an organization and he’s in front of the board, those two-day things you do in front of the board. The first dimension of leadership would be what is he going to accomplish? His understanding of what was being demanded of him was to be super smart, show how much he knew the business. He was the guy. He’s doing that he’s watching the board look bored. Then he is watching them, he’s lost them, but he only has that first dimension in mind and he hasn’t really thought it through. He just tries harder and it gets worse. He finally, with his dignity intact, just leaves.

He then calls me and David going, “Help.” So we started talking to Matt, and first we looked at, “What was your first dimension of leadership? You decided that was what it was, but were you right?” He then got to the point where he realized that what he needed to accomplish wasn’t so much to wow them with information, but to communicate to them to act like a CEO rather than a supplicant. That was the first dimension of change.

The second dimension of change in leadership was what was going on inside of him. What happened is he wasn’t able to be flexible in the moment he saw what was happening, he panicked. But another thing is he had decided that he had to be this sort of tough guy and hide his caring. In reality, he was a very caring person. That third dimension of leadership, he actually had screened out of the interview rather than brought it in.

And when he did, he showed up the next day not thinking about, “What is it that I have to say?” But, “How can people absorb? How can I create an environment where people feel safe and interested and safe with me at the helm?” And by making space and thinking about those things, the board was able to see that they would be in safe hands with him.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s good he had a two-day interview, he was actually able to step back. He had that time to reflect and then make space. A lot of leaders have time for this. Problems may come up or crises come up, but it’s not like it has to be done right away. We often have more time than we realize. How many options do you need to come up with when you’re facing something and you’re trying to just get beyond what you would normally do?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: When I work with my leaders, what I want them to do is to be able to have four options available to them. What I say is, “I don’t care which option you pick, but I want you to be able to do any of them.” Let’s say you’re at a meeting and somebody sneers at you during the meeting. That sneer is the stimulus, and your response may be whatever. But what I want a leader to be able to do is have four responses, and we call this way power. Someone makes a snide remark. Do you lean in and talk to them about it, confront it, take it on? That’s one option.

It may be someone makes that snide remark, and you may be aware that if you don’t cut this off at the pass, things are not going to work out. You want to be able to make that choice, but you don’t want it to be driven by anger or frustration. Now, the other choice you could have would be to lean back and perhaps think, “Okay, what’s the data here? I don’t think this is going to be really impacting anyone.

I might just make one comment about the information and move on.” But you also may want to lean with, “What’s going on with this person that he or she is being snarky?” And remember they’re having a really bad day or things going on in their life. You can actually be empathic to that person and perhaps say something supportive.

Or the hardest one is to not lean at all. You can lean in and engage, lean back, go to the data, lean with and connect or worry about the emotional personal consequences or not lean, which is the hardest. And not lean is your capacity to truly be able to not be triggered. Pause for a moment and then see what comes to you in the moment. And that is the equivalent of creating the aha in the shower moment. How can you pause enough so that you can receive knowledge? And neurologically, that’s how can you activate your default system of the brain, all of these have a lot of science underneath them.

CURT NICKISCH: Thinking about Viktor Frankl talking about the emotions that you have right after you receive a stimulus and how you have to almost give it time to fade away before you respond to something. It’s tricky. It’s hard. You really have to be self-aware.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: And that reminds me again of the second dimension of leadership. Who do you want to be? And he is such a paragon of that. Part of that is really knowing your inner resources and a real powerful support is your sense of purpose and the meaning you’re making. Let’s say you’re running that meeting and someone does something sneering.

Are you going to let your ego get in the way? Are you going to remember, “Wait, my purpose here is to be of service right now and our organization needs to do X, Y, Z.” And somebody throw in a lobbying a complaint in real time, that really doesn’t matter, but it’s your sense of purpose and mission that can keep you moving forward and can help create that space that you need.

CURT NICKISCH: How many options do you need to come up with? Four is a lot, if you’re stressed or doing something that you’re unfamiliar with or trying to get away from how you would normally handle something.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: I’d say you should pick your top two. The research is four or even more, but I think it’s know your default. For example, for me, if I’m going to default, I’m going to do something. And what I often say to myself-

CURT NICKISCH: You have the bias for action.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Totally. And then under stress it’s even more. What I do a lot is I say to myself, “Carol, downshift. Just downshift.” And I try to get myself to either a lean back or a lean with, because I know that I’m fast and under stress, I’ll go faster. I would say get two of them down and then try to add the third. And usually the one of don’t lean is the fourth. That is the hardest to do.

CURT NICKISCH: Some of these options have to be better in some situations. Does this just come with experience?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: What’s interesting, I was talking with a seasoned CEO last week, she’s been a CEO three times and she read the book and we were talking, she was really saying, “The reps help, it’s in the reps.” I would say two things is one, you practice small. If you keep one of these in mind, when I first came up with the idea of who do I want to be right now, I actually asked myself that question 80 times one day. And it is amazing how many of these split second choice moments we have that we see if we make ourselves a tiny bit of space. Those kinds of reps.

For the who do I want to be right now, that one actually works better I think small and instant as well as on the larger decision side. That could be, again, you’re at the end of a day and one of the people that reports to you, you’re really tired, they report you and they have done shoddy job.

Who do I want to be right now? Do I want to be the person who just is cranky with them and says something contemptuous? Do I want to be someone who lets it slide? Do I want to try and just lean in a caring way? This is like, “Who do I want to be right now? Who does this person need me to be right now?”

But it also works when you are at the cashier and the person in front of you is really slow. Who do you want to be right now? How can you course correct in the moment? And the neurology researches is those little dings during the day that create the most cognitive wear and tear. Who do I want to be right now in these small moments matters, and then if you can really slow down in the bigger moments, it can matter then too.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s interesting. You do need the reps matter, you can put on training wheels for this. Are there other ways to develop those muscles, besides starting small and practicing with smaller moments?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Yeah, I think they’re small. There’s getting the reps and there’s really getting who are you meant to be as a leader? What is your identity in this moment? And one of the things people don’t tell you about leadership, leadership sucks. It’s really hard. You’re sacrificing all the time. There’s all these things you want to do and you are not allowed to. It doesn’t serve your company.

And what we talk about is how does a leader go from individual identity to entity identity? You are the embodiment of your organization and it is your responsibility to have way power, to have choices in the moment. You are at a news conference and somebody lops something at you, you can’t answer as you have to embody the entity. And that takes you back to a sense of your purpose and your mission and it can be incredibly supportive if you live there. On one hand, the reps, the micro behaviors and the other one, your sense of purpose and all these macro behaviors.

CURT NICKISCH: I imagine. What are some of the biggest places that people have trouble adopting this mindset?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Definitely under fire. One of them is there’s the validating your vantage point, and I read a fabulous HBR article 2005, it said, “75% of small business failures were the result of over optimism.” One of the big areas to practice this is validating your vantage point and in some ways the more powerful you get and the smarter you are, the most vulnerable to believing yourself. And how do you start thinking, “Well, what is an ideal vantage point? How do I know that I’m seeing clearly? What gets in the way of my seeing clearly?”

And that’s where a lot of the unconscious bias work comes in. And what’s your own cognitive style and how does it impact how you think in what you do? That whole area we find is very important for people. The big enemy is ego. You really need to be a great leader on one hand, have a super powerful sense of self, and I can have an impact, but to also be able to be humble and be an open system so you’re able to be wrong.

CURT NICKISCH: This also makes you less predictable because you are more dynamic and especially with CEOs or really any leaders, sometimes people only have so many interactions with that person. And it’s helpful for team members to know, “This is the way this person likes to receive information when they’ve said this before, that means this.” And here’s a situation where CEOs may be acting differently in different situations and that might make them harder to read.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: It may take getting used to, I think what we’re talking about though is ideally somebody operating from their core, and it also doesn’t have to be so radical. It may be that I gently lean in with you at the beginning of a meeting when I want to get things going and when they do, I lean back and let people bring in the data, then be aware of the people issues and then be comfortable with silence.

You’ve just done lean in back with and don’t lean, but it can be subtle. The core is your capacity to make space, and I think that’s what brings it together. It’s not going to be wild and jerky, but this leader is able to be agile and to respond to what’s coming their way rather than always a cookie cutter leader.

CURT NICKISCH: You can do this without being hard to read or coming across as wishy-washy.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Yeah. Or as you said, jolting people all the time because the toughest leader is the one that’s deeply unpredictable, but it’s emotionally unpredictable whether they’re nice and supportive one time and then really caustic another. Better to be caustic all the time, then caustic and then nice. I think you’re picking up on that in a way I hadn’t really thought of, but how do you be centered and agile? Rather than this unpredictable, which reduces psychological safety.

CURT NICKISCH: You want to be consistent and agile.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Yeah, exactly.

CURT NICKISCH: Is this completely an individual leadership thing or can this be part of a lead leadership culture or system at an organization?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: I love that question. Your question is how do you make it part of the culture and the core leadership capabilities that you want to flow through an organization, which basically is this scalable.

CURT NICKISCH: A culture of decision making, yeah.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: One of the things we do is we also have a couple of meta tools, and one of them is something I called coach by numbers or the 10 of 10 conversation. That one ripples out very quickly. Ten of 10, that’s basically, you’ve heard this in positive psychology, et cetera, but it makes it really very specific, which is if you wanted to accomplish something outside or inside, if you were a 10 out of 10, what would you look like? If you were going to work on something, it can be hypothetical, what would it be?

What we would start out with, I would say if you were a 10 out of 10 on this, what would you look like? What would you be doing? And we would really spell out not what the problem is, but if you were really good at it.

CURT NICKISCH: What would it look like? Yeah.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: What would it look like? Paint the picture, what would people be seeing if I had a video camera, if I was listening to you, what are you thinking, feeling, doing? And really paint that picture 10 out of 10 and that’s not easy. Then the second question would be, on that scale of one to 10, what number would you give yourself now? What would you rate yourself?

We’ll pretend that you said a six. The next question, which I think of as the question that counts is what are you doing that you are a six and not a 5.5 and really make you think. Cognitively, it’s much easier for you to describe what you’re doing wrong. It is much easier for you to be critical.

And we would really, really unpack that with the same intensity of something that went horribly wrong and say, “Well, what else did you do wrong? What else did you wrong?” That same energy, but a positive confrontation and truly make you map it out and it’s hard. Only then would we go to, “Okay, what could you do over the next eight weeks to get from a six to a 6.5?” This is a conversation you can have with yourself.

It works really well with the team. Any interaction, it works well at home and it’s like a fractal conversation. It’s a pattern of a conversation that can just ripple out through a company. Even just the 10 out of 10 part. To say, we once did a strategy consultation, David Noble and I, and they came up with their 10 strategies and this guy walked up and said, “Okay, if this strategy, we know strategy meetings, what do you do?” We tear things apart. That’s what funny is. Instead, he said, “If this strategy was a 10 out of 10, what would it look like?” And in that moment, that orientation basically frackled out through the entire company. Now in every business development conversation, what would a 10 look like for you? That question alone is very powerful, and what did I do right conversation is very powerful.

CURT NICKISCH: When people do this, what are some of the surprising and great things that can happen?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: One thing that surprises them a lot is it helps to put their ways of being and operating into a larger context and to realize their choice. A lot of times they realize the things that they are doing right and it surprises them that that’s an area where they can grow. Very often, the big surprise for them also is in this vantage point of really getting, there’s lots of choices in how I’m going to look at a situation. Some of the things we think about are how clear do you have on rose colored glasses, charcoal colored glasses, or are you nearsighted? Are you fire sighted? And just think about, “Okay, what does that mean with this decision I’m about to make?”

Then the other one is, do you need to be super precise or is a grainy pitcher going to work? That’s a choice. The other one I really like is Rosabeth Kanter talks about this zoom in, zoom out, and I think of it, do you want to be a hawk or a hummingbird or, my personal favorite is, do you want to be a dolphin? A lot of people think to really have a good vantage point, you need to see everything like an eagle. But a lot of people don’t operate that way, but they’re more like dolphins.

CURT NICKISCH: They’re swimming in it.

CAROL KAUFFMAN: Yes. Exactly. You’re underwater and you’re ping with echolocation, and then you’re able to be opportunistic and then you burst above the water now and then to take a look-out. What makes me personally feel the best about this work is when I see people valuing themselves and getting like, “Yeah, I’m a dolphin. I thought that wasn’t okay.” Or someone saying, “Gee, I often do that stop and pause thing, and I didn’t know that was okay.” I find something just incredibly satisfying when people feel like they can really be them and the best leader they can be and that they have these choices available to them.

CURT NICKISCH: It’s just a richer way to be if you have more than one MO to draw on, right?

CAROL KAUFFMAN: You’re actually making me realize something for the very first time, which is on one hand you talked about people have this modus operandi, and now we’ve circled around to people being able to appreciate themselves, but what if the modus operandi they’ve been having isn’t really true to their core self? And maybe that MO isn’t really who they’re supposed to be, and maybe this kind of approach can help them develop their true organic modus operandi rather than what they’ve been inculcated with or taught.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s a hopeful place to end the conversation. Carol, thanks for coming on the show to talk about it.


CURT NICKISCH: That’s Carol Kauffman. She’s a professor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the HBR article, “The Power of Options,” and the new book, Real-Time Leadership: Find Your Winning Moves When the Stakes are High.

And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career, find them at or search HBR in Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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