We are making hundreds of decisions a day. Starting from when to get up, what to wear, what to have for breakfast, whether to say good morning to the neighbor, what brand of yogurt to buy, up to whether to get married, build a house, or quit a job.
All these decisions, small or big, are a strain on our energy. Some of them can be eliminated by routines or life philosophy. When we know where we are going in our life, what is important to us, most of the decisions make themselves. But there are still some decisions that require a bit more effort and good judgment.
Good judgment is the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. It is a combination of personal virtues with knowledge and experience. It is the secret sauce that helps great people make the right choices even when others hesitate.
It is much more than a gut feeling. As I have shown previously, gut feeling or intuition doesn’t work if you are not an expert. Good judgment includes the ability to think critically, analyze the situation thoughtfully, remove biases, and have self-awareness, so you know when you are out of your league and need help.
Things to learn to improve your judgment
Good judgment can be learned, but there is no simple recipe. Sir Andrew Likierman, professor at London Business School, describes some traits of leaders who can make the right judgment calls.
Be a good listener and reader – listen to others, make an effort to understand, continually learn about the world around you by observing and reading. And connect the dots. By understanding how things relate, by seeing the patterns, you have a higher chance of making better judgment calls. Don’t absorb information without questioning it. A critical assessment of what you hear and read is essential.
Seek diversity and not self-validation – an essential part of critical thinking and good decision making is an ability to fight your biases and make sure you process information with an open mind. Too often, people select only information that validates their point of view and strengthens their biases. This then leads to impaired judgment. It is important to surround yourself with people who will complement you. Not your clones. You want to be able to ask for the opinion of those who have a different set of experiences and views than you do. They will present you with a line of thinking you may have otherwise overlooked.
Keep building experience in your field – the more relevant experience and knowledge you have, the better decisions you will make. Even your gut feeling or intuition will improve as you become a bigger expert in the specific domain. However, make sure you don’t focus too narrowly. It is helpful to have a lot of relevant experience in the area where the decision is to be made, but having a broader understanding of how the world works, seeing the big picture, will ensure you don’t get blinded by expertise that may not be completely transferable to the new problem.
Detach your ego from the decision – being able to detach intellectually and emotionally from the decision you are about to make is an essential step in fighting biases. This means having your ego in check and knowing how various cognitive biases work, and trying your best to understand how they are impacting your thinking at this moment.
Look for better options – people often feel that there is only a limited number of options, one worse than the other. Being able to think a bit more creatively, as they say, out of the box, can lead to a better decision. Typically, you can see this when two sides argue that their approach to solving a particular problem is better than the other side’s solution. They are so focused on pushing their points of view that they fail to realize there might be a third way that combines the best of both worlds. Not a compromise, but truly a better solution. It also means that when you consider the options taken, you should consider the cost of not taking the other option and the unintended consequences of your choice.
Consider the ability to execute – even the best decision, the best strategy, is useless if you or the team can’t implement it properly. Always consider the difference between the best solution to a problem and the best solution for your current circumstances. Good judgment means you can realistically assess your capabilities and resources and then pick an option that you can execute. In project management, you carefully consider and track risks and the likelihood they materialize. This type of information is an integral part of the decision-making process.
Decision making for ourselves and others
How easy it is to make decisions for other people. You may have encountered it yourself. It is much easier to decide if it is not you who is impacted. For example, you may have a hard time deciding whether to quit your job or not. You may think about it for months. But if a friend asks for your advice, you are likely to give him or her your recommendation much faster and consider a bigger array of options. You will even propose some out-of-the-box ideas that you wouldn’t consider for yourself. The chances are that you will suggest that they indeed should quit the job they dislike. Something you are not so keen on doing yourself.
Evan Polman, Yi Liu, Yongfang Liu, and Jiangli Jiao focused on figuring out how we make decisions for ourselves and others. They found out that people have a different mindset when deciding for someone else. We are more adventurous and willing to take risks as compared to a more cautious approach when deciding for ourselves.
Polman and the team have run several studies with over a thousand participants. The results showed that not only the choices people make are different when deciding for themselves and others, but also the process, the way we come to a decision is different.
When choosing for ourselves, we focus on details. We are more deliberate and risk-averse. We focus only on a couple of options, and we dig deep. We focus on risks and on what could potentially go wrong.
When choosing for others, we explore more options and take a big-picture view. This leads to a willingness to take risks and try something new. We collect and examine more information and are more positive about our choice. We tend to focus on more positive aspects. We promote action and try to inspire by focusing on a positive outcome.
This is an important realization as it can give you an idea of how to make better decisions for yourself. If you struggle with indecisiveness, try to reframe the problem in such a way that you distance yourself from it. Look at it as if it is your friend who has the problem, and you are here to provide a recommendation. It may lead to decision and action faster.
Ultimately, you can also consider letting others decide for you. Especially when it comes to topics where you are burning your decision-making energy, yet you don’t care about the actual outcome. For example, “I just want to eat, I really don’t care where we go for lunch,” type of problem is okay to leave to others.
Part of good judgment is the ability to critically evaluate the information you are receiving. Helen Lee Bouygues talks about three things you can do to improve your critical thinking skills: question assumptions, reason through logic, diversify thought. You probably do some of them to some extent, but I would bet you don’t do it deliberately. You are not thinking about thinking.
Question assumptions – deliberately questioning one’s premises is important in many aspects of life. Starting with fake news, through understanding different cultures, to understanding ourselves. Unfortunately, we tend to take too many things as given without questioning why we believe so. Obviously, you can’t go through your day questioning everything. That would drive you crazy. But when the stakes are high enough, it pays to slow down and examine what assumptions you are making and whether there is no different explanation to what you are seeing or hearing. Asking questions like, “What data support this?” or “What other options or explanations are there?” can help you build this habit.
Reason through logic – simplicity is great. It helps you make sense of the complex world around us. But simplifying too much is dangerous and can lead to wrong conclusions. You want to go for a simple, not simplistic. Thinking takes effort. People often tend to jump to quick conclusions without giving things enough thought. We tend to generalize and simplify. You may look around the car park in your office and see a bunch of luxury cars, and you infer that everyone on the planet buys luxury cars. You don’t consider that maybe the people from low-income jobs can’t afford luxury items. Or that people on the other side of the globe may have very different tastes, priorities, or brands available. A typical example of faulty logic is cause and effect. Only because an event B follows an event A doesn’t mean that event A caused event B. There might be no relation between the two events at all. Be a student of logic, test your hypothesis, and be careful about your conclusions.
Diversify thought – there are cognitive biases that work against the good judgment and critical thinking. We tend to unconsciously select information and points of view that support what we already know or believe. This information reinforces our beliefs even though there is a ton of evidence that shows we are wrong. Unfortunately, we decided, subconsciously, to ignore it. Social media and various personalization algorithms are strengthening these biases.
If you get on Facebook or any other social platform, the chances are that the information you will be presented is based on your past preference. If you clicked a couple of times on an article about cute puppies, you will be presented with an avalanche of similar posts in the future, and articles about other topics will be filtered out. Eventually, you conclude that nothing is more important in today’s world than cute puppies. This is also one reason why society becomes more and more polarized and why people have extremist views. We are being blinded to anything that is not aligned with what we already believe in.
The same goes for your friends. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who may have similar views of the world, and then we reinforce these views in each other. As a result, we become more and more narrow-minded and get a twisted view of the world.
For critical thinking, you need to diversify your thoughts. You need to listen to people who are very different from you and try to understand their point of view. You need to get out of your bubble and get yourself exposed to a wide array of thoughts and insights. You need to meet someone different from you every now and then. You need to read something that you know will go against what you believe. You need to listen to the politician from the competing party even if you know you will disagree with every word they say. Listen and force yourself to understand where they are coming from. You will still disagree with them, but maybe you discover that some bits of what they are saying sound reasonable. Even when they have an opposing point of view, it doesn’t mean they are bad people.
Critical thinking is incredibly important, and one could argue that it is becoming more and more important with the information overload we have today. Too many of us take for granted whatever we hear on TV or read on social networks. As a result, we are making fools of ourselves. By blindly believing everything we hear, we are giving up our freedom to chose.
Putting it all together
There is a good reason why the ancient Stoics believed that logic and the ability to reason are the basis for a virtuous life. This is a uniquely human ability. No other creature on this planet can reason. Good judgment is incredibly important not only for leadership, your career but also for satisfaction with your life. If you are confident in your ability to make the right decisions, you will be more comfortable in actually making them. You won’t rely on others. With solid critical thinking, you won’t be at the mercy of those trying to take advantage of you. You won’t accept what you hear or read blindly. You will have your life under your control.
What are your thoughts on the topic? How important good judgment is? What are your strategies to make good decisions? How do you combat the scourge of fake news?
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