Oct 29, 2014

Decision Fatigue – Ensuring you make the best choice

By Allison Rzen

The average executive is making dozens of decisions a day. Some decisions come more easily, with the presentation of solid facts, data and concrete implications associated with the decision being made. Others are a lot more tied to your “gut”, like hiring a new leader on your team. You can have all the data points in the world, but at the end of the day you need to listen to that voice at the back of your head telling you if the fit is right or not.

The sheer volume of decisions we make in a day – and the heightened importance we place on all decisions – leads to a very real phenomenon known as “decision fatigue”. Put simply, when presented with too many decisions to make, one’s ability to make rational choices is impaired. Think about the time you went to that restaurant with an enormous menu and you ended up with something boring and unhealthy because it was too much to take in.

Decision fatigue has significant implications when the stakes are much higher. In a study conducted by Shai Danziger of Ben Gurion University, and Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, they found that judges were more likely to give favourable rulings to cases of similar legal characteristics earlier in their day or after breaks when their minds were fresher and less cluttered. Other researchers have been studying the effects of “ego depletion”, finding that we only have a finite amount of willpower at any given time, and once it is depleted we start making poor – or no – decisions.

With these studies in mind, I decided to conduct my own highly unscientific research into our short list interview processes. I looked at our nine most recently completed searches where our clients interviewed all candidates on one day. The average was 4 – 5 candidates in a day. I looked at the ordinal of the eventual placed candidate. 6 of the candidates who were successful were the first candidates seen by our clients. The other 3 were interviewed right after a lunch break. Not a single candidate who was seen later in the day was successful which was quite surprising, given we’d often thought the last slot of the day gave someone a leg up as they’d be the most memorable.

As senior leaders, we are asked to make exceedingly important decisions that affect business outcomes, shareholder returns, and, ultimately, the livelihoods of our team members, customers and clients. Think about when you make some of your most important decisions. Are they at the end of a day-long Board meeting or strategy session? Think of the last time you sat in a room all day with your colleagues, trying to set a course of action, and remember that feeling of being frustrated and itchy because the day has just drained you. Then think again about the importance and long-term implications of the decision that was in front of you. Is this the best way to resolve the situation?

Many times I’ve walked out of a full-day of interviews with my clients, feeling like we’d thankfully gotten to a decision, but also feeling drained and completely unexcited about the outcome. This is why we always champion more than one opportunity to meet potential candidates, and seek multiple data points to make sure the fit is there. While many people feel a huge sense of urgency to close the deal, making the wrong decision on a senior leadership hire can have far-reaching implications and can literally cost you thousands upon thousands of dollars.

While we don’t always get to choose our decision making deadlines, we can be more mindful of the fact that there are more variables at play than the data in front of us and our intuition. In our fast-paced, no-time-to-lose world, we need to remind ourselves that unless we’re literally in the midst of a life-or-death situation, there is nothing wrong with sleeping on something, taking some quiet time to reflect, and then coming back refreshed and capable of making the right decision.