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How to make your leadership decisions more reliable


The McKinsey Quarterly website features a discussion on how to test your decision-making skills and when to trust your gut instincts.

Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead write: "Our work on flawed decisions suggests that leaders cannot prevent gut instinct from influencing their judgments. What they can do is identify situations where it is likely to be biased and then strengthen the decision process to reduce the resulting risk."

The authors explain that "gut intuition" draws upon our accumulated experiences in a "synthesised way", so judgments are formed and action is taken without "logical, conscious consideration".

In fact, our brains work in a similar fashion when making decisions of a "more leisurely" nature. Campbell and Whitehead point to the latest findings in decision neuroscience which "suggest that our judgments are initiated by the unconscious weighing of emotional tags associated with our memories rather than by the conscious weighing of rational pros and cons".


So given that leaders cannot avoid the influence of gut instinct, they need to do everything they can to protect their decisions against bias and to be sure they are drawing on the right emotions and experiences. For this purpose, Campbell and Whitehead offer four tests.

The first is the familiarity test, which involves asking the question: "Have we frequently experienced identical or similar situations?" The authors say: "If we have plenty of appropriate memories to scan, our judgment is likely to be sound," adding, "The way to judge appropriate familiarity is by examining the main uncertainties in a situation – do we have sufficient experience to make sound judgments about them?"

The second test concerns feedback, asking: "Did we get reliable feedback in past situations?" Campbell and Whitehead say that "without reliable feedback, our emotional tags can tell us that our past judgments were good, even though an objective assessment would record them as bad".

Next comes the measured-emotions test, which asks: "Are the emotions we have experienced in similar or related situations measured?" The authors warn that if a situation stirs up highly charged emotions, judgment can become unbalanced.

The fourth and final test is one of independence: "Are we likely to be influenced by any inappropriate personal interests or attachments?" The authors give the following hypothetical example:

"If we are trying to decide between two office locations for an organisation, one of which is much more personally convenient, we should be cautious. Our subconscious will have more positive emotional tags for the more convenient location."

Failure of just one of these tests means the decision process must be strengthened to alleviate the risk of an unwanted outcome. Stronger governance, additional experience and data, or more dialogue and challenge are the ways to do this, according to Campbell and Whitehead.

How to test your decision-making instincts
Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead
McKinsey Quarterly