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Fear is the common culprit in decision making problems. Obstacles like confirmation bias, group think, sunk-cost effect, and others have a common origin — fear. Insights from neuroscience confirm that when we are fearful our brain activity shifts away from creative centers and into narrow, defensive patterns.

The fear that our previous thinking might be wrong prompts us to look for confirmation of what we initially decided (confirmation bias). The fear that our commitment of time, money, and resources to a previous course of action was misplaced causes us to hang onto past decisions that aren’t working (sunk-cost effect). The fear that we’ll be on the losing end of an issue drives people to seek safety in the herd (group think).

Since fear is such a powerful emotion with direct effects on our thought processes, we need to take conscious and concerted efforts to override its effects.

Here are some proven practices to overcome decision-making obstacles. When a decision is important, it’s worth the time and effort to give it our best thinking. Teams from startups to Fortune 100 companies have used these practices successfully to solve tough issues:

  1. Involve all stakeholders. Being left out of things that affect us is a huge fear trigger.
  2. Focus on what you are hoping to accomplish. Hope is the antidote to fear. When people discuss their hopes about a topic and why those hopes are important to them, they ease up from pre-determined positions and find common ground.
  3. Listen for the real issue or concern. When people don’t feel heard, fear rises. When people aren’t heard, we may miss key information and often end up dealing with surface symptoms rather than deeper causes.
  4. Get all of the options out on the table before discussing any of them. In typical decision-making discussions, people quickly turn to supporting or defending initial points of view. Fear rises and additional options don’t get identified.
  5. Engage everyone in identifying both positives and negatives of the options. Debates prompt fear. When everyone offers both positives and negatives for each option, they share information without being cast into adversarial roles.
  6. Let people change their minds without losing face. No one wants to see what they recommended go down in flames. Quick secret ballots enable everyone to express their judgment about the most desirable direction to fulfill the hopes they share and other acceptable options. You avoid group think.
  7. Have an acceptable backup option. In today’s fast-moving world, circumstances change. If you have an acceptable backup option, you can quickly pivot and avoid sunk-cost thinking.

You can see these practices translated into concrete steps in my book “How Great Decisions Get Made: 10 Easy Steps for Reaching Agreement on Even the Toughest Issues” with Foreword by Margaret Wheatley (American Management Association 2004).

About Don Maruska

As a founder and CEO of three Silicon Valley companies, venture investor, and recipient of the National Innovators Award, Don writes, speaks, and coaches from a broad base of experience » Learn More

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