Do men or women make better decision-makers?

Wouldn’t it be good if we all learned about decision-making and decisiveness at school? We learn mostly by the consequences of our decisions. We learn from history how key decisions affected the world. Economics explains what goes into a decision and conversely what gets left out (opportunity costs). Legal studies show the ramifications of choices, and hence the need for regulation.

But what really constitutes wise decisions, and what might help shift long-held cultural perceptions that men are better decision-makers than women?

Researching how women decide

Therese Huston, a cognitive psychologist from Seattle University, has just published research titled “How Women Decide”, which looks at the ways women are frequently perceived as less decisive (and therefore less capable of making the “tough” decisions) than men.

Huston points out that most books on exemplary decision-making are written by men, and generally cite the examples of famous men. Other management literature on leadership and gaining confidence (for example Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In), seems to be aimed primarily at women, though perhaps not the Margaret Thatchers and Golda Meirs of the world.

Read Maria Lally’s excellent article on why women are better decision makers than men.

The power of less confidence

Huston believes women are burdened with less confidence in their decision-making prowess, and unfairly so. Her research shows that women take more factors into account when arriving at a decision. They also are more likely to ask for input from others as part of their intelligence gathering.

With company boards always going on about their risk matrices and due diligence approaches, it’s really cause for wonder why more women aren’t in the boardroom, given the above.

Think about the choice between Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump: many Americans would still rather vote for a reckless, outspoken candidate than one who at least has a track record in governance (albeit a somewhat tarnished reputation). Society values decisiveness in leaders more than other important qualities.

Are we weak to seek opinions?

Huston nevertherless found that men and women struggle equally when it comes to making tricky decisions. When the chips are down, women are more likely to be collaborative in their approach. While consultation has been shown to improve the quality of decisions, Huston found that willingness to seek others’ views is nevertheless still perceived as “weak”.

Interestingly, additional research shows that women are more cautious and self-critical when the pressure’s on to make a judgment call, while men tend to take bigger risks, particularly when they are stressed. Occasionally gambles of this nature pay off, but the double-standard is evident when women (more than men) are expected to justify their reasoning. Clearly the corporate and governance worlds have a long way to go in overcoming such stereotypes.

Improve your decision-making

Huston has useful strategies for improving decision-making (no matter which sex you are), and in particular advocates the importance of telling yourself that stress during times of decision-making is synonymous with excitement (“the body experiences the two emotions the same way”).  I’m not sure this is the case – many of us simply find stress to be an oppressive dead weight. However, we can train ourselves to rethink our internal scripts.

See stress as helpful

If stress is paralysing you or your team maybe stress is letting you know there are more considerations, options or elements to a prospective decision than previously considered.  Huston recommends looking at more than two options – at least three. Those who excel at this usually have a wealth of wide experience and well-pondered knowledge. They may profess to act “from the gut” but as Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates in “Blink”, they are rapidly, unconsciously processing the accumulation of many built-up memories and past truths.

Seek input

If a decision is big and/or complex, weigh the pros and cons with people you trust and respect. Don’t be ashamed to seek input if you’re unsure about making a step forward. For those who regard this as “indecisive”, you’re doing due diligence! That’s what company boards are for: they should definitely be bringing more women in the risk matrix equation and certainly to the boardroom table.

Be willing to seek input from people who you might not necessarily agree with – they can provide valuable clues as to an improved outcome. There are, granted, times when differences and arguments must be put aside for the sake of a worthwhile objective and this is when leadership is called for.

Use authoritative tone of voice

For those wanting to counter perceptions of indecision, you can disguise stress and under-confidence by employing an authoritative tone of voice (this works 99% of the time).

It’s ludicrous but important because people implicitly seek reassurance that you’re ably processing what needs to be done. Of course, tone of voice is not the be-all and end-all but it’s why some blustering commentators have got away with so much.

Remove um-ing and ah-ing, maybe and possibly. If we read and compared people’s words (as distinct from listening to them), we would probably see little difference in content and meaning, yet the delivery can make all the difference.

Everyone owes it to themselves to look past the posturing and simplistic slogans.

“You’re fired!” works well in reality television, but could be the worst decision a leader – and those who endorse that leader – could be making. Astute decision-makers look before they leap.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.


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