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The 10-Minute No Pain, No Gain Secret to Better Decisions

Erik Larson Aug 21, 2015 3:04:14 PM
cognitive dissonance
cognitive dissonance

It’s counterintuitive, but science shows that to make good decisions, you must learn to ignore the pain of holding conflicting ideas in your head. Here’s why.

As humans, our urge is to myopically pursue a desired goal. As a culture, and especially in the business realm, we bow at the altar of Getting Shit Done. So it’s easy to mistake having a single-tracked mind as a virtue. As a result, we tend to evade advocates in favor of picking a single strategy and setting out on a warpath.

Chalk it up to biology: our brains are wired to tell stories that are consistent and make sense, even if those stories lead us the wrong way. It takes a big effort to seriously consider different views. In fact, doing it takes so much effort that it causes real pain, very much like the pain of pushing through a challenging workout.

Psychologists call the source of this pain cognitive dissonance. And while the pain is only in our head, the bad decisions we make to avoid that pain hurt our performance in the real world. Even worse, neurologists have found that just being asked to consider different views can cause the anger centers of our brain to light up, which is not a helpful impulse for team decision-making in today’s complex and layered business world.

To boost your decision-making performance and get your team to the next level, it’s key to look at the pain head on. Embrace it, feel the burn, and get stronger.

Here is a tough, 10-minute “no pain, no gain” exercise that will improve your decision performance:

  1. Think about the five most important areas of your business impacted by the decision. These might be specific annual or quarterly goals, or more general business drivers like growth, profitability or customer satisfaction. Write them down.
  2. Notice the strongest emotions that the decision evokes in you. Are you eager, afraid, confused, hopeful, embarrassed? Write down your five strongest emotions.
  3. Now make a focused effort to set your emotions aside, as if you believe there is no reason to feel that way. To do this, imagine what would have to be true about each area affected to cause your strongest emotions to fade away.

This will be hard, especially at first. You will have to think of ideas that conflict with your current opinions, which is especially difficult if you feel strongly about the decision. Meditation might help. Noticing our emotions and then letting them go is an excellent way to clear our heads and reduce stress. It’s also an excellent way to tamp down emotions and improve our decision-making.

To get in optimal decision-making shape, pick a decision you are facing and push yourself through this exercise every week or so. It will never happen without struggle, and the effort of holding conflicting ideas will always painful. But if you can learn to push through the pain, and use tools to help, then your decision-making skills will get stronger.

Here is a real world example. Late last year we decided to pivot from building a consumer product to delivering a business solution for managers and teams. I was sure we needed to make the change, the direction was clear, and I was ready to go. But I knew the risks of putting on blinders, so I used Cloverpop to lay out the impacts involved, and make it easy for my other team members to weigh in.

I was surprised to learn that our CTO was less certain of the decision. At first I could feel my anger centers light up, but I took a breath, set my excitement aside and read his perspective. His concern was a real one: how would this decision affect our company culture? If I hadn’t stopped and considered this perspective, I might have charged forward and ruined the team chemistry in the process. Instead, we discussed it, planned for it, moved forward with even more confidence — and now our team is humming along, healthy and growing.

So push through the pain, and embrace conflicting perspectives. Don’t get bitten by the big risks hiding out in your blind spot.

Want to improve your decision-making performance? Cloverpop is a decision app for business — an easy-to-use combination of decision science best practices and team analysis. Imagine asking the right questions, making the right decisions, and getting the right people bought in, every time. Sign up for the preview today.