Earl R Smith II, PhD


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Many of my mentoring engagements are with CEO’s who are dedicated to improving their abilities and growing into their ever changing and expanding roles. One of the areas which we tend to focus on is the decision-making process. Interestingly, it is actually the pre-decision part which gives most of them problems. I regularly encounter clients who spend a great deal of time and energy dreading the meeting or situation in which they will have to make and implement an important decision. Then there are clients who, under the pressure to make such a decision, race right to making it in order to relieve the tension. Both end up with unanticipated first and second order effects from their actions.

After years of work with senior executives, I came to realize that these types of situations – and the two coping behaviors which are frequently adopted – are evidence of an aversion to the unknown. It is that apprehension which drives what turns out to often be counter-intuitive and counter-productive behaviors. Maybe it is the first time a CEO is faced with the challenge of re-negotiating an agreement with a senior team member – or perhaps it might be the need to restructure the relationship with the company’s board. In each case, the executive is entering uncharted territory. In every case, it is the apprehension that causes the hesitancy and most of the collateral damage.

The clearest way I might explain what I mean is by using the example of getting into a pool. Let’s say you go to a pool – you stand back and look at the water – worry that it might be cold – and hesitate to get in. There are lots of people already in the water – so the temperature is clearly OK – and will be after you get in – but that doesn’t eliminate your apprehension. You hesitate – maybe dip a toe in – and then wade a bit at a time into the shallow end until – after an agonizing few minutes you are finally in up to your neck. The apprehensions which you allow to dominate your actions generate your behavior. But all of these things are manufactured complexities – the water is the temperature that it is and probably well within the ‘acceptable’ range. You know from past experience that, once you get in, the water will be fine. But you allow a manufactured unknown – a manufactured apprehension – to control your actions. Because you keep the water at a distance you cannot experience its ‘reality’ – and so it remains an unknown.

But let’s look at the situation from another point of view. There are, of course, knowns – things that you can and need to be sure of before you get into the pool – like can you swim, is the water too deep, is the area that you might dive into too shallow or too crowded? But these are easily quantifiable. You do know if you can swim or not. You can see the pool and the people in it. You can choose the end of the pool you get into. And, like any rational decision, you can consider and evaluate all these based on personal experience and visual evidence. But what is the temperature of the water? That is the great unknown and the very thing that causes you to hesitate. But come on – you’ve been in pools before – you know that, once you get in, the water will be fine. Still you hesitate. And the only way to test the water – the only way the question can be answered – is to get in the pool.

The moral of this story is ‘the only pain you can avoid is the pain you cause yourself by avoiding’. The water will be what it is – and the experience of getting in will also be what it is – but the experience of the apprehension – of standing on the sidelines and dreading – that is a pain of your own manufacture – and it is completely unreal – virtual.

There is one more aspect of this process that I find fascinating. People who regularly cause themselves discomfort by avoiding decisions which take them into unknown regions also tend to have a distorted vision of the reality which they are facing. By that I mean that they tend to reduce situations to much simpler formulations and to clutter it with all sorts of completely incidental trappings. This is a very strange phenomenon – one which baffled me at first. Discussions about their behavior generally ran through all sorts of emotional and quasi-logical terrain – the ‘human’ aspects of which were often very convoluted – but seldom related directly to the situation and challenge before them. But their analysis of the decision tended to be overly simplified – reduced to a formulation which was clearly at odds with even a casual review.

Both of these behaviors combined to self-sabotage the person’s ability to generate a positive outcome. It wasn’t just the loss of time and opportunity – it was the corrosive effect of allowing this hesitancy to dominate the process – that was the real cost of the syndrome.

I have developed an approach to this type of situation which works remarkably well – and regularly use it in my mentoring engagements. The keys are to quantify the unknowns, increase an awareness of the process and the limitations that certain behaviors produce, develop the tools for a more realistic situation assessment and then lead the client through several of these decisions – until the new approach becomes a reflex. Now, after years of refinement, the approach works every time. It is a real joy to see clients now successfully dealing with challenges that used to turn them into the proverbial ‘deer in the headlights’ or the ‘bull in the china shop’.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD