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Why leaders must transform their decision making process

by Chris Langdon

Filed under Coronavirus / Climate Emergency / Leadership case studies

Decision making has been on my mind this week. Many leaders we encounter in our work on Thinking the Unthinkable ask for advice on how to make decisions in the fast-changing world of radical uncertainty. It’s not just the pandemic, but we have to take huge decisions with the looming Climate Emergency.

That’s why my ears picked up when I heard Mark Sedwill, now Lord Sedwill, recently retired head of the British Civil Service, in conversation with the journalist and political strategist Andy Coulson in his podcast Crisis, What Crisis?

It’s just one of a number of webinars and podcasts I’ve heard in recent days where the subject of decision making has cropped up in insightful ways.

Now, Mark is a man who knows a crisis, having led the civil service through the Brexit process, the Salisbury chemical weapons attack in 2018 and also the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

The power of a pizza

When asked about his “crisis cures”, the first thing that came into his head was “pizza”. That may be a strange thing to say, he admitted, but it is really important to make sure that your staff are fed and watered during a crisis.

Critically, it is an opportunity to engage informally with them as you gather around the pizza when it arrives. As a caring leader you can see who is exhausted under the pressure and understand when you need to send them home. This informal interaction with people is a very important point for getting the best out of your staff. This is a good way to do it, in our view.

Personally, I’m not so sure that pizza is the best food, given all the work that’s been done by sports coaches about a diet of too many carbs. But I think this idea that you engage to understand how stressed staff are, particularly the most enthusiastic, is really important.

Living from work

Much of our work has been with public sector clients looking at issues of burnout. This is more and more important in the era of coronavirus. I always say it’s not so much about working from home, but ‘living from work’. Your kitchen table is where you eat - and also where you work.

You have to be aware as a boss of the other stresses on staff. The things you can’t easily see if you’re not around the table eating the pizza late at night with them. You have to take care to pick up the cues virtually. Burnout and work stress is not discussed enough, so it’s good to hear Mark raise it.

When it comes to getting the best out of staff in structured meetings, Mark refers to the old adage: one mouth, two ears. But it isn’t just having two ears, it’s actively using them to listen. To make sure you don’t just let the loud voices in the room dominate. But you make sure that - as the leader - you hear from the quiet voices.

Going slow to go fast

The people who may be diverse in their thinking – those that don’t conform as much - will have interesting insights to share. Hearing their voice is a crucial part of being a good leader and making good decisions.

We say that the leader who can say to staff “I don’t know, what do you think?” is opening up all sorts of possibilities. She will only gain from learning the frank views of staff, however unthinkable or unpalatable. But it does take courage.

Mark believes that you have to act at great speed but going slow is the best way to go fast.

Calmness is an essential personal trait of a leader under pressure. A leader who isn’t calm cannot expect the staff to be calm – a key cause of burnout.

Talking to yourself

And finally, he says it is about communication. Now, communication isn’t just telling the boss (in his case the Prime Minister) what we recommend he does, or a boss telling the staff what he plans to do. It’s also about talking to yourself. Thinking through: ‘Am I making the right decisions?’ ‘Have I put to one side my biases?” And I would add: ‘Have I screened out noise?’

Noise is a term I just heard from Professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, the Nobel Prize winning author, who wrote the best-seller Thinking, Fast & Slow. It is about “chance variability in people’s judgments”.

Companies can make really bad decisions because they are distracted and not focused on the objective factors. Professor Kahneman was speaking at the DLD conference. He has a new book out in May with co-authors Cass Sunstein of Harvard and Olivier Sibony of HEC Business School. As you would expect, it is entitled Noise. It I think is going to be a must read.

Rational structured conversation

Kahneman made a similar point to Mark Sedwill about meetings. They have a set of tools - a ‘noise audit’ and ‘mediating assessments’ - which are designed to stop variable thinking.

They help prevent a dominant, usually male, voice pushing his gut feelings. Instead, leaders should encourage rational structured conversation. Kahneman draws on work that he did with the Israeli Defence Force in the past, where structured interviews were used to combat against cognitive biases for those being recruited or promoted.

A number of big companies do that in recruitment, but not often in decision making. This is a really important lesson, in our view.

While listening to the DLD Conference, my ears also picked up when I heard the prize-winning author Elif Shafak. She wrote a book last year with a great title: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division. She talked about how leaders need to unlearn and relearn. And we think that is absolutely right.

We see this in our Thinking the Unthinkable work repeatedly. For so many leaders, the conformity that got them to the top prevents them from understanding the world we’re now in.

Focus on Purpose

Elif describes what she calls an ‘in-between world’. With the uncertainty we’re now experiencing, we don’t know what the new age is going to be. It’s what she calls a time of renewal and growth.

That is exactly what we’re saying in our work on the Climate Emergency. Leaders need to focus on Purpose.

There has to be good decision making at all levels if we’re going to reach Net Zero by 2050. So, Elif’s idea of renewal and a new way of thinking is absolutely critical in our view to improving our decision-making processes.

Indeed, we are working with neuroscientists at a company called Truthsayers on a neurotech™ tool which will allow us to help board directors and chairs make decisions in better ways.

We are all trying to unravel the extraordinary complexity we live in. Our advisory work on decision-making also involves sharing inspiring stories of leadership. Not just the successes but the complex and difficult journey to get there.

You can share your own stories with us – or find out more about our work on decision making – by using the contact form below.

One of our clients, Mark Rose the CEO of the leading conversation charity, Fauna and Flora International, just wrote to us to say: “There has never been a better time to think the unthinkable.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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