How Executive Coaching Can Help You Avoid Decision Making Traps

Jeff Evans's picture

The battle of Hattin was fought when an executive leader, Guy de Lusignan, led his organization of 20,000 crusaders on the offensive against Saladin. Lusignan abandoned the lush Springs of Sephora in the Palestine desert and marched — in July without water — across a desert plain. Saladin drew Lusignan’s parched army into a trap, destroying it. 

Most executives don't face Lusignan’s level of peril in decision-making, but he would have benefited from executive coaching to help him identify decision-making traps (and consider carrying water in a desert). Why did Lusignan make such a self-destructive move? Because he was roundly criticized for not going on the offensive in 1183. 

Second-Guessing

In any organization, second-level employees enjoy the privilege of second-guessing decisions. But what of the decision-makers? Are they second-guessing their own decisions? The time to question a decision is beforehand, not after. In fact, questioning the decision-making process itself is vital to the success of any organization. Executive coaching can be instrumental in helping executives to see — and avoid — eight common decision-making traps. 

Heuristics

Our minds use simple routines, called heuristics, to approach decisions. If these routines are flawed, our decision-making is flawed. Executive coaching can help us look carefully at, and redefine, the underlying assumptions in our routines. 

Researchers John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney and Howard Raiffa illustrated the peril of heuristics this way: Our minds equate distance with clear vision (distant objects are fuzzier), but to estimate distance on a foggy day, we have to throw out that heuristic. Airplane pilots, ship captains and train engineers all need awareness of their own heuristic flaws.

The First Five Traps

The three researchers laid out eight decision-making traps in their seminal 1998 piece for Harvard Business Review, the first five of which cluster around incoming information:

  1. Anchoring — Locking future decisions in by binding yourself to whatever initial information you had.
  2. Confirmation Bias — Deliberately seeking out evidence to support your existing point of view.
  3. Framing — Decision opportunities are presented as gain-versus-loss or with arbitrary reference points.
  4. Status Quo — A built-in bias toward business as usual.
  5. Sunk Costs — Making new decisions to reinforce the validity of old ones.

The Other Three Traps

Three decision traps fall under a category of forecasting and estimating uncertainty, both of which are weak spots in all humans. The researchers described these tendencies, all easily overcome with executive coaching:p

  1. Overconfidence — We do not acknowledge our inherent inability to estimate closely or forecast accurately, so we make bad decisions.
  2. Prudence — Trimming estimates or changing forecasts in an effort “to be on the safe side” can have a domino effect, leading to later, wildly inaccurate decisions.
  3. Recallability — Depending on memory to be a reliable reporter of past events when, research shows, our memories exaggerate some events and underplay others.

Coaching

Executive coaching can help any decision-maker to:

  • Step back and reframe the question
  • Question original assumptions
  • Examine evidence impartially
  • Review past decisions accurately
  • Correctly ignore past influences

Working with an executive coach can help you defeat common decision-making flaws, guiding you to make rational, profitable decisions. An emotionally intelligent, introspective executive avoids traps.