Thinking by Dr. Robert Gerwig

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Some decisions are easy. Or at least they’re relatively easy. Coke or Mug Root Beer. … I try not to over indulge on soft drinks, but I do have a few each week depending on my activities and taste-bud cravings. There are times when nothing seems to quench my thirst like a can of Coke poured over ice, especially in the Philippines where Coke uses real “cane sugar” to sweeten the drink. Other times, I love the sweet flavors of root beer.

As I’ve noted in many of my 100+ articles over the last two years, communication and decision-making are seminal leadership topics for good reason. In practice, these two “topics” come into play every day. In fact, they come into play every day and every hour. Arguably, decision-making of one type or another comes into play continually. Though it may be a subconscious decision, our body responds to thousands of decisions every hour (or even minute).

For example, do I breathe or not. Do I blink my eyes or not. You get the idea. And, yes, I’m being a bit silly. But my point is not. We literally make thousands upon thousands of decisions every day. Even if we restricted this to only our conscious or semi-conscious decisions, I think you’ll agree we make hundreds of decisions a day. What time do I get up. Do I brush my teeth or get a cup of coffee first. What do I wear. Which shirt. Which trousers. Which belt. And on it goes all day long.

If I ever go back to school, my most likely field of study will be focused on decision making. But for today, I simply want to get your brain juices flowing a bit and challenge you to think before making important decisions. Of course the first step is to recognize when you’re about to make an important decision. Many people fail to recognize (until they experience the negative consequence of a poor decision) that they actually made a decision.

This brief article is about challenging your biases, your filters, as you make a decision. What prompted this topic? Well, one was a visit to INSEAD, a world-class business school, in Singapore. While on a break, I visited the bookstore and picked up a copy of the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner). This international bestseller is about understanding how and why we make the choices we make. It is about human rationality and irrationality. It is about the way we see ourselves. It is about thinking.

Kahneman discusses intuition in detail. Its pros and cons. When it is appropriate and when it can get us in trouble. There are times when intuition (or “quick thinking”) is helpful. For example, he notes that most people “are pitch-perfect in detecting anger in the first word of a telephone call, recognize as we enter a room that we were the subject of the conversation, and quickly react to subtle signs that the driver of the car in the next lane is dangerous” (p. 11). In more challenging environments, valid intuitions (or expert intuitions) develop because experts have learned to recognize and leverage familiar elements or patterns in a new situation.

Are there times when intuition doesn’t work? Absolutely. This often occurs when taking a broad generalization and applying it to a specific data point. For example, I might have a belief (based on stereotypes) that politicians are difficult to trust. My intuition might cause me to more guarded with a friend who also happens to be the mayor than I would be otherwise. However, what is true “in general” isn’t always true “in specific” and the dangers of overusing a rule of thumb (a heuristic) are common to the layman and the “expert” alike. Case in point, Kahneman and another colleague, Amos Tversky, found that statisticians were not good intuitive statisticians.

So where does this leave us? Simply to think…Think about your biases and heuristics prior to making major decisions. Think about the outcome(s) of your decision. Think about your decision successes and your decision failures. Think about your learnings. Think about generalizations and how they may, or may not, apply in a specific instance. In short, think. It’s not easy I know but the dividends it yields are great.

Finally, knowing how you (and others) think should influence how you behave. For example, right or wrong, if people tend to judge others by appearance, use this to your advantage. For example, if you know people generalize about clothing and hygiene, don’t show up for an interview disheveled and wearing inappropriate clothing. You might say to yourself, “Well, I’m intelligent, capable and have the necessary skills and background for the job. They shouldn’t judge me by my appearance. If they do, that’s their fault.” While this may be true, if you want the job, go ahead and play to biases of others. Just because I’ve challenged you to think about your filters, heuristics, and biases doesn’t mean that others will suddenly become completely rational and objective. Use your knowledge to your advantage.

What do you think? Is thinking hard? Easy? Engaging? Boring?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]

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