Being decisive, taking decisions even in under ambiguous circumstances is a key leadership skill. Deciding on the next action, the best course forward when you have only limited information and the outcome may affect many people and even a whole business. That’s scary.
No wonder instead of deciding many rather choose to postpone the decision, don’t act at all or accept the way things currently are. Instead of doing the wrong thing, often times we opt to just do nothing.
A Way Out: Clever Strategies to Avoid Decisions
There are a number of things you can do to not take any decision. One of the best is to close your eyes and hope for the best. Being unreflective helps you to stay blind to potential risks and stay the course.
A second strategy is to distract yourself from anything that reminds you of this outstanding decision. Then of course you can always try and shift the responsibility to other (“I fully trust you with that.”). Lastly, try to find excuses ahead of time to justify why you’re taking poor actions.
Your Thoughts and Feelings May hold You Back
There are four ways how the inner clockwork of your thoughts and feelings interferes with your decision making.
status quo bias: You prefer not to change, and omission bias: You just don’t take action.
You’re human, you like what’s familiar. So naturally you have a tendency to avoid to do anything that would change what is, which means doing nothing or choosing thew status quo. Interestingly, this bias is so strong that you keep choosing the same thing over and over even though your preferences changed. We fear loss and regret and the anticipation of these amplifies our fear of making a decision. Choosing what we know just seems much less threatening.
inaction inertia: You already missed an opportunity anyway.
You tend to not take decisions on topics where you previously passed on a similar and more attractive alternative before. Especially when the new alternative looks – despite being less attractive than the previous one – better than what you have right now. It’s as if you’re stubborn. You might think “what if something better comes along?” and choose to wait for that to happen instead of taking action. And again, the fear of regret is a big show-stopper in this phenomenon as well.
choice deferral: You delay the decision.
This is when you choose not to make a decision. At least not right now. Instead, you might look for more and better alternatives, decide against any of the present alternatives or avoid taking the responsibility for making the decision in the first place. You should know though, that with more alternatives you often feel ever more paralysed and unsure.
Ever stood in the supermarket in front of the jam and marmalade shelf feeling completely overwhelmed and resorting to not buy any of it?
Also, the more you know about your options, the more you know about the trade-offs between these alternatives. Choosing one over the other, knowing what you miss out on, evokes many negative emotions which you can best avoid by avoiding the decision.
Factors Leading to Decision Avoidance
So why does all this happen? For one thing, our values and preferences tend to stay somewhat the same over time. This leads us to choose the status quo over something new more often. Another contributor are the costs associated with change. These could be fees for changing a subscription or the effort and energy you might have to put in to make a change. Maybe you also wait until the cost of maintaining the status quo becomes so high that changing looks like a much better option. I already mentioned regret a few times. The level of regret and blame we anticipate coming with a choosing a certain option often leads to us sticking with the as-is or delaying our decision. We want to protect ourselves from any negative consequences of making a decision.
What Makes You Think You Might Regret the Decision
There are many factors that can increase your anticipated feelings of regret. Here are some of them:
Thinking the decision is irreversible.
Being afraid of learning after the decision is made “what could have been” if you had chose another option.
The feeling that the loss of a certain amount will be much more terrible than the joy would be great when gaining the same amount. (You feel worse about not getting 50 EUR than you’d feel happy about getting them.)
You feel personally responsible for the outcome.
Thinking you’ll be cutting it too close: The more “what ifs” you can think of, the bigger your anticipated regret.
You think something better might come along and you’ll miss out on that if you make a decision now.
What can you do?
Indecisive? Try This
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when feeling indecisive:
- Are there good reasons not to decide right now? Am I exaggerating the costs and effort involved with changing or are they reasonable? What is the true loss of deciding now compared to later?
- How important is it to protect myself from regret or anxiety? Is avoiding these feelings by avoiding the decision appropriate compared to the consts of indecision?
- What reasons to I have not to decide? Who taught me to be cautious? What values and beliefs about decisions do I have that might hold me back? What are helpful thoughts in making this decision?
- What additional information do I need? What is my goal? What do I need to achieve it? Which options can I find and how do they each measure against these criteria?
- Am I being fair to the situation? Does the severity of the decision justify my lengthy contemplation of potential trade-offs? How bad would a wrong decision really be? What is a simpler rule I can use to make the decision?
- Can the universe help me with this? Could I just flip a coin and be equally happy? How do I feel about the option the coin “chose”? Would I have liked it to be the other one?
Have a great week!
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This article is based on Anderson, C. J. (2003). The psychology of doing nothing: forms of decision avoidance result from reason and emotion. Psychological bulletin, 129(1), 139.