TregoED Blog

Decision Making: Why Can’t We Trust Our “Gut?”

As I work with school leadership teams to help them implement a set of systemic strategies to improve decision-making, I find that many “seasoned” administrators are skeptical about their personal need to take the training to heart.

Their perspective is that due to their long experience, and good judgment, they have developed an internal framework for how to make good decisions.  Generally, they are not able to specify the strategies they use to make their judgments—just that they have a kind of “sixth sense” or “just know” when it’s “right”.  It would be nice if we could rely on human intuition and depend on its conclusions.

But, in a recent paper on “Intuitive Expertise”, there is strong evidence that we should rely less, not more on our intuition.  Some findings:

  • Intuition is dependable only in environments where there is clear information and immediate feedback.  This certainly is not the school administrator’s world.  Most school decisions are messy and contain lots of contradictory noise and clutter.
  • We apply our intuition inconsistently.  Mood, perceptions, and biases impact our thinking.
  • It is easy to make a bad decision very quickly.  We have many prejudices that lead us astray when making an assessment of an issue.  How we get our information and our interpretation of it affects how we take action.
  • We don’t even know where our “intuitive” ideas come from.  There is no way that even an experienced administrator can know if a conclusion is the result of a legitimate “expert” insight or a predisposed idea.

Even if intuitive decision-making was reliable, how would school leaders help others become better decision-makers?  How would we help them develop this personal skill?  How do you improve the system?  After all, job one for every leader is not only to be personally effective, but to also help others be successful in their work.  A lot more is needed than intuition in a system.

Judgment and Experience are Not Enough:  Effective leadership is all about making effective decisions.  Without a common strategy across the district for making decisions, it is likely to experience a number of pitfalls which will reduce the effectiveness of the decision and its implementation:

  • Failing to consider a robust range of alternatives. 
  • Failing to think through what we need and want in a final choice.
  • Failing to see our own biased preferences.
  • Failing to sort out the information we need from the information that is irrelevant.
  • Failing to consider in advance the consequences of our decision.
  • Failing to effectively involve others.

A Better Approach:  Using a strategic analytic process, like TregoEd’s Decision Analysis, provides a proven alternative to intuitive or idiosyncratic decision-making.  Research show that effective leaders are able to

  • Recognize and explain why a decision needs to be made.
  • Articulate the criteria or objectives that would define a good choice.
  • Identify a range of possible alternatives.
  • Use the criteria to evaluate each alternative.
  • Involve others where and when necessary in the process.

Experience and Judgment Plus ProcessDecision Analysis is a structured process that uses questions to help avoid the specific pitfalls of decision-making and maximize the chances for success.  Decision-making does depend upon experience and good judgment.  However, it is within a framework of a systematic procedure that experience and judgment will produce effective decisions and a reputation of effective leadership.

Please Share Your Thoughts:  What is your experience with instinctive or intuitive decisions?