Two heads are better than one

Whether you’re making decisions, innovating, developing plans or solving problems, the more the merrier is the go. Up to a point of course; too many cooks spoil the broth. But enough of cliches.

There is no doubt that people working together, directing their efforts towards the same endpoint, almost always do better than one lonely brain. Particularly when they are an assorted group, with different backgrounds, experiences, skills sets and all the rest of it. We all know that.

Why is it, then, that we so seldom act on what we know? Well, we’re all under pressure and involving people does take more time. But let’s face it, when you get a better result, that bit of extra time is worth it. Plus, the people you’ve involved have a better understanding of the situation and therefore greater commitment to the decision, innovation, plan or solution. Plus, when it’s your team you’re involving, it’s good for their development, both as individuals and as a team. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We the team’, in which there is no ‘I’. That makes your life a lot easier in the long run, too.

Of course, you don’t want to involve people when it’s just to rubber-stamp a decision or plan you’ve already made. Or so you get to lead a meeting that takes up everyone’s time and merely fills the room with warm, moist air. When people don’t care about the decision or plan or won’t be involved in implementing it or when it doesn’t affect them, don’t waste their time. And naturally, when time is really tight, you possibly can’t afford to involve people.

But that leaves a lot of other times when you are well advised to bring in the troops. When you have good people on your team — that is when you’ve recruited well, trained and developed them well, motivated and engaged them well — they probably have the skills and experience to help.

People often want to be involved, too. When you’re lucky, it’s because they care about the team or the organisation or their customers. Maybe it’s for their own personal development. Maybe it’s because they know they can make a positive contribution. Maybe they’d rather sit in with a group than get on with their own job. When that latter reason is the case, leave that person out of the loop, because you want people who can add value to your decision, innovation, plan or solution.

You should almost always include people who are affected by your decision, plan, innovation or solution and people who you need to help you implement it willingly and enthusiastically. When you need people’s acceptance and support, invite them to the party, too.

So there we are. You know it and I know it. Two heads are better than one. Act on what you know.




Are you an insecure manager?

Some new research shows that–surprise, surprise–managers who lack confidence don’t listen to their employees. Okay, it was a small study–41 managers and their 148 staff in a large oil company, but it rings true, doesn’t it.

The researchers confirmed their finding in a follow-up study that set up participants to be either confident or unconfident and then make a managerial decision. Again, managers low in confidence stuck to their own opinions and ignored the opinions of others while confident managers heeded the advice offered to them.

In the next part of the study, the researchers  found that just asking managers to positively affirm their positive qualities by writing them about the made them confident enough to listen to other’s opinions and ideas.

Since we know that teams that share ideas are more motivated and organisations with open communication cultures that listen to employees do better, it’s in everyone’s best interests for managers to feel confident in their abilities, and therefore willing to heed the advice and opinions of others. So the next time you’re feeling less than ‘able’, here’s what to do:

  1. Remind yourself that you got your job on merit and you’re pretty good at what you do; then think of a few things you’ve done well recently.
  2. Put aside the need to know everything–no manager does.
  3. Enlist your team and the aid of experts to help reach a tough decision or solve a thorny problem.

How to think through a decision

One way of looking at how we make decisions is called the ‘story model’, or ‘explanation-based decision making’. When we face a situation that calls for a decision, we recognise some of its elements from similar past experiences and we create a story, or explanation, about what’s going on and what will happen. We do this intuitively, without really thinking about what we’re doing, and based on our story and how things worked out in those similar past situations, we make our decision. This can happen quite quickly.

The trouble with that is twofold: sometimes our stories are less complete than we realise and sometimes we overlook differences between our ‘previous experience stories’ and the situation we’re currently facing. Then we make a poor decision.

To avoid that, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What other information do I need?
  • Does any of my evidence or information conflict with other evidence or information or not make sense?
  • What other ways of looking at the information or evidence are there?
  • What could a different story, or way of looking at this situation, be? How does that compare with my first story?
  • What decision am I leaning towards and why?
  • What are the likely consequences of this decision?

Then it’s a good idea to write down why the decision you’re leaning towards is the best one, compared with your other options, along the lines of: Why is this a smart decision? (Yes, write it down.) This further helps you build a more complete picture of the situation and look at it from different angles and on top of that, it gives you more confidence in your decision.

When you think things through deliberately and thoughtfully like this, you generally make a better decision. Which, of course, saves time and tears in the long run.

Discussion questions

How does this compare with the way you usually make decisions?

Healthy leaders lead better

Do you need to make an important decision? Get a good night’s rest. Do some aerobic exercise and eat a ‘good square meal’, as my mother would say.

Your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for solving problems and making decisions (as well as other executive functions like abstract thinking, managing your emotions, planning, and regulating your behaviour) needs to be exercised, fed, rested and watered to work properly.

Located just behind your forehead, your prefrontal cortex also helps you learn, adjust and react to changing situations, and concentrate on your goals. So don’t make any important plans or decisions or hold any difficult conversations when you’re feeling hungry, thirsty, tired or stressed.

As a leader, you need to make calm and well-reasoned decisions and control your emotions and to do that, you need to take care of yourself with proper rest, aerobic exercise and nutrition.

Discussion questions

When are you at your freshest? That’s probably when you’ll be most creative, able to deal effectively with challenging situations and make sound decisions.

Beware of stuffy meeting rooms!

We all know that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a problem for the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. But did you know that too much CO2 in your office or home impairs your ability to make sound decisions?

Outdoor CO2 levels are usually about 380 parts per million (ppm); in buildings, the level can reach several thousand ppm, particularly in meeting rooms, where people gather for extended periods of time. (Poorly ventilated classrooms are another concern in this regard.)

Scientists at The Berkeley Lab, part of the US Department of Energy, using a sophisticated test developed by the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, have found that even moderately high indoor concentrations of CO2 significantly reduce peoples’ decision-making performance.

Using nine scales of decision-making performance, test subjects showed significant reductions on six of the scales at CO2 levels of 1000 ppm and large reductions on seven of the scales at 2500 ppm. The abilities to take initiative and think strategically fared the worst.

Although the scientists studied only 24 people, they say the results are ‘unambiguous’. According to one of the scientists, William Fisk, the stronger the effect, the fewer subjects you need to see it; “our effect was so big, even with a small number of people, it was a very clear effect.”

The implication for decision-making is that the more people there are in a workspace, the more CO2 levels rise and the more careful you need to be to dose up with fresh air when making important decisions. Maybe the idea of ‘walking meetings’ outdoors is as good for decisions as it is for your health.

The implication for sustainable buildings is that we need to think carefully about making buildings ‘tighter’ to make them more energy-efficient and less expensive to run. Not thinking clearly is expensive, too.

Discussion questions

How is the air quality in your workspace? How much fresh air do you breath during an average work day? (“Smokos” outside definitely don’t count!) When you’re running a lengthy meeting, do you give people the opportunity to take short breaks in the fresh air and open windows in the meeting room when possible?