decision traps

7 Traps That Cause Poor Decisions

Imagine this scenario. You have an important decision to make. It’s so important you decide to convene a group because you believe the old saying “More heads are better than one.”

I’ve got some bad news.

The pathway to a good decision is full of thinking traps that can mess you up. More heads will not necessarily help. They might even accentuate the problems.

I’ve got some good news too.

When you know about the traps and what to look for, you are less likely to step into one. If you are leading a group, you can act as a guide and make them aware of the dangers that are lurking nearby.

Good decisions

Before I point out the traps, you first need to know what a good decision looks like. It has three characteristics:

  1. It’s timely.
  2. It’s fact-based.
  3. It’s made using a sound process.

Notice I didn’t include: It produces the desired outcome. Your group can make a good decision and still get lousy results because:

  • Not all the information you needed was available.
  • Emergency circumstances forced a quick decision.
  • Poor implementation introduced problems.
  • The world is a random place, and something unlikely happened.

If you believe an outcome determines the quality of the decision that led to it, you’ve already fallen into the outcome bias trap. Let’s step around that one. We have a lot of exploring left to do.

The decision traps

Which of these do you see affecting your team’s ability to make a good decision?

1. The status quo trap

Those who make changes always take a risk. They are well aware that most people are heavily influenced by the outcome bias and will accuse them of making a bone-headed decision if things don’t work out.

That fear of being blamed makes the status quo look like the safer option, even though it may not be. Of course people also won’t admit their fear of being on the hook for an outcome that can’t be predicted with certainty. Instead they’ll argue for “slowing things down,” “collecting more information,” or ” taking time for additional analysis.”

The trap is sprung when:

  • speed matters,
  • additional information won’t affect the decision, or
  • the status quo is a poor choice.

Groups should consider the status quo. It’s usually a viable option. It should not, however, be judged more positively because of the uncertainty associated with the other options.

2. The groupthink trap

This is probably the most famous of the decision-making traps. It refers to our tendency to go along to get along.

Imagine sitting in a meeting and your boss or best friend advocates strongly for a particular approach. It could also be that you quickly sense a majority of the group is about to support an idea with which you don’t agree. Do you speak up? If you are in the groupthink trap, you won’t. Nor will others.

Ironically, most team leaders want to create a harmonious group of people who work well together. Unfortunately, that desire for harmony is mistaken to mean there shouldn’t be any disagreement or conflict. That couldn’t be further from how a healthy team operates.

3. The anchoring trap

If you want your way at a critical decision point in a meeting, be the first to offer an opinion about what ought to be done. You’ll be using the anchoring trap to your advantage.

Of course, the point of this article is to reach better decisions, so hopefully everyone will recognize the trap and step around it, in spite of your evil intentions.

This trap is our tendency to favor the first information or opinion we receive about a problem. In the moments after it’s presented, it is the best idea because it is the only idea. This gives it just a little more shine than those opinions that follow.

Instead of equally comparing options, those later opinions have the burden of proving they are better than the first. It’s like the game King of the Hill. Unless someone can knock you off the hill, you remain king. The problem is you have some advantages by being on top in the first place.

4. The framing trap

Just like being first with an opinion can create a trap, the person asking the question can also spring one.

Framing refers to how a question or supporting information is presented to a group. Imagine a situation in which employee turnover has become a big problem. The management team takes up the issue. The leader kicks off the conversation by stating, “As you know, employees are leaving in droves. It’s time for us to decide whether to finally do something about our compensation plan or not.”

Now suppose a different start to the conversation. “As you know, employees are leaving in droves. It’s time for us to identify the causes of the problem and make some choices about how to address it.”

Two different frames. Two very different conversations. People with an agenda will use framing, both consciously and unconsciously, to get a conversation moving in the direction they want. Don’t let that happen. Shine a bright light on that trap when you notice it.

5. The confirming trap

This one is particularly dangerous. When faced with a decision, individuals within a group may already have beliefs about what the answer should be. They then proceed to search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information in a way that confirms their own preconceptions. This reinforces their beliefs and may convince others to see it their way as well.

The problem is that they ignore information that works against their beliefs. And when that information isn’t brought into the decision-making process, the group misses what might be critical data.

Good decisions rely on careful consideration of all the pertinent information.

6. The overconfidence trap

We humans think we can predict all kinds of things that we really can’t. Need an example, scan the MarketWatch front page four days in a row. You will likely see at least four authoritative headlines predicting the stock market’s future direction. Two will state it’s going up and two will predict down.

In a meeting when coworkers start laying out the facts of the situation, you might ask them how they know them to be true. If they start blustering that they have the experience to know or that their instincts are usually right on, alarm bells should ring in your head. The group is about to get caught in the overconfidence trap.

7. The recallability trap

The statistics don’t lie. Driving is significantly more dangerous than flying, and yet you may know someone who’s afraid to fly, but not at all afraid to ride in a car. The problem is that when an airliner goes down, it’s a big deal. We don’t forget it. This tricks our brains into believing that airline crashes are more common than they actually are.

Your management team falls into this trap when it puts more emphasis on memorable events, rather than looking at all the data over a longer period of time. This is why I always feel a little sorry for an employee who performed well all year, but made a mistake just days before his/her annual performance review. The power of this trap will give that error much greater negative influence on the evaluation than it should.

8. All the other traps

There are too many traps to include in this one post. Want to read more? Check out this list of cognitive biases to see what your team is up against as it struggles to make high-quality decisions.

Watch out

The traps are out there. Now that you know it, you can take action to avoid them. Your team might not always get the desired outcome, but you can be satisfied that you made a good decision.

Tom LaForce, President, LaForce Teamwork Inc.