By any definition of the word “success,” requires good decision-making. Knowing this, business school and university departments of political science spend much of their time trying to teach the difference between a good decision and a bad one.
But rational approaches to decision-making have their limits. The two biggest obstacles are well known. The first is that the future rarely repeats the past so exactly that old solutions perfectly apply to new situations. The second is psychological. The person making the decision is never perfectly rational.
It’s this second obstacle that proves the most troubling (although fascinating to historians when they chronicle the horrible or triumphant decisions made by leaders in the past), because the human psyche contains mysteries that seem impenetrable to itself.
How much do you know yourself? With complete knowledge, you’d be able to take your own quirks, biases, and weak spots into account. Then decisions would be much easier to make. You wouldn’t wind up in a job that looked great on paper but turned out to be miserable after a year.
When it comes to the workplace, the most basic level of self-knowledge must be applied. At every level, the following questions are relevant, no matter what kind of work you do:
- Can I tolerate repetitive tasks, or am I too easily bored?
- How well can I handle conflict with co-workers?
- Can I focus in a busy environment or am I easily distracted?
- How do I handle everyday stress?
- Do tight deadlines bring out the best or worst in me?
- Can I stand up for myself around people with strong personalities?
- Am I a loner or a team player?
- Do I need a creative challenge to be happy?
For most people, sadly, the answers to these questions are learned through the hard, slow process of trial and error. Once learned, the lessons become part of the person’s story. “I’m a team player” or “I hate deadlines” becomes a personal trait. Countless careers are limited, however, by applying these traits as if they are fixed, like having blue eyes. Probably the most dominant feature of great success stories is the opposite — an ability to be resilient and flexible. It’s not either/or. Rather, the person’s psychology is open enough and resilient enough to adapt to life’s constant changes.
If you can’t make a decision unless it matches your psychological profile, you will be trapped when your weaknesses, blind spots, and prejudices are challenged. This trap isn’t built into the situation; it’s built into your past. The horrors of World War I were so scarring psychologically that European leaders couldn’t make rational decisions in the face of Hitler — it was an extreme case of past conditioning overshadowing the present situation. But all of us know the little voice inside that says, “I’ve been here before. I know what to do and what not to do.” The difference between a good and bad decision usually comes down to how much this voice influences you.
It can be too much, too little, or just enough. Which means that you need another voice, one that comes from self-awareness and not just the past. In a stressful situation, you cannot evade self-awareness, because otherwise the stress will drive you forward, not your mind. In army training, knowing that combat is incredibly stressful, drill sergeants exist to pound into their recruits an immunity to noise, confusion, and fear. The mind of a young infantryman can’t be relied upon, so for everyone’s safety, he should act as much like a robot as possible, doing exactly what he was trained to do.
The equivalent of a robot in everyday life is someone who rigidly applies his past conditioning in every situation. In the economic downturn of 2007, large cohorts of Wall Street traders, banking institutions, lenders, and stock analysts made horrendously bad decisions for the simple reason that they acted by habit and conditioning. “The way I’m doing this has always worked in the past, so it will work now.” Crises expose how much this mode of robotic thinking dominates in every areas of business. Media advertising masks this reality by using terms like creative, innovative, meeting the challenges of the future. If only that were true.
To actually be innovative, creative, and capable of meeting the challenges of the future, no one is perfectly rational, or should be. A computer can be programmed to make rational decisions, but its error rate will be high, since its input will come entirely form the past.