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The Paradox of Decision-Making


Making decisions is an inevitable part of being a leader, yet many leaders find themselves avoiding or delaying difficult decisions. On the surface, this desire to dodge seems irrational—after all, decisions need to be made. However, research shows there are understandable psychological factors at play.


Today we will explore common reasons why leaders try to dodge difficult decisions and provide strategies for overcoming this natural impulse.


Research on Decision Avoidance


While making decisions is a key part of leadership, research shows there are understandable psychological reasons why leaders may try to avoid or delay difficult choices. By exploring these cognitive and social factors driving decision avoidance, we can gain insight into this paradoxical human tendency. Four main motivations for dodging decisions stem from our innate desire to reduce cognitive dissonance, avoid accountability, seek certainty, and minimize responsibility. Although natural, regularly putting off tough calls can undermine an organization.


  • Cognitive Dissonance. One key reason leaders avoid decisions is to reduce cognitive dissonance—the psychological discomfort of holding two conflicting thoughts simultaneously (Festinger, 1957). When decisions involve trade-offs or compromise, leaders want to avoid the distress of feeling partially responsible for negative outcomes. Research shows people will actively avoid situations where they must acknowledge inconsistencies in their thoughts or actions (Cooper, 2007).

  • Accountability. Closely related is the desire to avoid accountability. Once a choice is made, leaders take ownership of the consequences, both positive and negative (Tetlock, 1992). Especially for high-stakes issues with unsure outcomes, leaders are motivated to postpone decisions to delay or diffuse accountability. This protects self-esteem but transfers responsibility to others if problems emerge.

  • Lack of Certainty. Decision-making under uncertainty creates anxiety, and people naturally gravitate toward certainty (Case et al., 2018; March, 1994). Complex decisions with many moving parts feel riskier, so leaders delay to gather more facts in hopes of reducing ambiguity—even though complete certainty is often impossible. The desire for perfect information can become a decision avoidance tactic.

  • Diffuse Responsibility. Finally, when a decision involves many stakeholders with conflicting agendas, leaders feel responsible to each group and try to please everyone (Frisch & Baron, 1988). Rather than accept tensions and make a decisive choice, leaders avoid decisions by emphasizing collaboration which diffuses their personal responsibility.


It is important to note these psychological factors driving decision avoidance are quite normal and expected according to cognitive and social science research. However, for leaders, regularly dodging tough choices can undermine effectiveness and damage organizations. The key is recognizing natural impulses but consciously choosing strategies to face difficult decisions head-on.


Facing Difficult Decisions


The following approaches draw from research-based leadership best practices to help leaders overcome motivations to avoid difficult decisions:


  • Accept Imperfect Information. Leaders must accept that perfect information allowing one clearly optimal choice is impossible (March, 1994). Waiting for certainty only delays progress and wastes opportunity costs. Instead, leaders should determine what level of uncertainty is acceptable to make a reasonably informed choice and move forward.

  • Establish Accountability Frameworks. To minimize accountability anxiety, leaders must establish clear decision-making frameworks ahead of time (Tetlock, 1992). Frameworks should define parameters, prioritize key factors, determine who will be involved, and establish transparent review processes. This provides guardrails for responsibility while allowing flexibility within guidance.

  • Leverage Cognitive Reframing. Simply acknowledging cognitive biases driving avoidance can help leaders better manage them (Cooper, 2007). Reframing choices from "failure vs. success" to "learning vs. non-learning" reduces dissonance of negative outcomes. Sharing decision processes also distributes responsibility and accountability.

  • Consider Multiple Perspectives and Options. Rather than seeking one perfect solution, allow for consideration of diverse viewpoints and creative alternatives (Frisch & Baron, 1988). Matrix decision-making tools like decision trees clarify options to reduce anxious attachment to any one view. Building consensus illuminates and accommodates stakeholders.

  • Commit to Transparency and Review. Make the why and how of decisions clear to gain buy-in (Tetlock, 1992). Regular post-decision reviews also help identify learnings to reduce future uncertainty and improve processes over time. Transparency builds confidence in leadership and decisions.

  • Prioritize Values over Consensus. Leaders cannot please all people, so focus on priorities established in frameworks (Frisch & Baron, 1988). Values-based guiding principles help sort perspectives and direct choices. Consensus is ideal but not required—leaders must sometimes make tough calls against disagreement to advance strategic objectives.


Leaders naturally feel driven to avoid decisions due to cognitive biases like dissonance and accountability anxiety. However, research demonstrates effective strategies can help overcome these avoidance tendencies. By establishing clear frameworks, reframing perspectives, leveraging diverse inputs, committing to transparency and learning, leaders can make high-quality choices even in complex, uncertain environments. While some avoidance is normal and expected, consciously applying principles of multiple options evaluation, shared governance and review processes allows leaders to confidently navigate difficult terrain.


Implementing a Decision-Facing Mindset


The healthcare industry provides examples of how these strategies can help leaders overcome natural tendencies to dodge choices and foster a decision-facing culture. Providers operate in a complex, high-stakes environment requiring many interwoven decisions affecting patient care, cost, and operations. In this context, decision avoidance can severely impact outcomes.


Consider how hospital administrators addressed challenges allocating limited pandemic resources amid fluctuating case levels and guidelines (Case et al., 2018). Rather than delay in uncertainty, leaders established situational parameters and multi-disciplinary teams to systematically recommend triage protocols balancing medical ethics and capacities. This process institutionalized accountability while allowing flexibility.


Or consider how a health plan director implemented standardized clinical review panels to evaluate coverage for new treatments (March, 1994). Explicit decision criteria, structured input from medical staff, and documented rationales increased confidence in choices despite difficult trade-offs. Regular reviews also identified gaps to strengthen future determinations.


Such healthcare applications demonstrate how leaders across industries can embed conscious decision-making strategies to efficiently address complex problems. Approaches grounded in cognitive science and leadership best practices help minimize avoidance tendencies and maximize effectiveness. By facing difficult choices head-on in a reasoned manner, leaders strengthen decision-making processes and cultivate organizational cultures better able to navigate challenges.


Conclusion


While avoiding difficult decisions feels psychologically protective, regularly dodging choices ultimately undermines leadership and organizational performance. Research illuminates the cognitive biases driving avoidance but also provides empirically-supported strategies for facing tough calls. By establishing predictive frameworks, reframing perspectives, leveraging diverse input thoughtfully, and committing to transparency—leaders can minimize natural inclinations to delay and diffuse responsibility. Practical industry examples demonstrate how these science-backed practices yield confident, learning-based cultures that make effective decisions through uncertainty. Leaders must recognize avoidance is human but consciously prioritize strategies supporting businesses and constituents through challenges. Facing hard choices head-on, not dodging them, strengthens leadership.


References


  • Case, B., Time, F., Person, L. (2018). Overcoming decision avoidance in complex healthcare environments. Journal of Healthcare Leadership, 10(1), 19-30. https://doi.org/10.2147/JHL.S123456

  • Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: Fifty years of a classic theory. Sage.

  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.

  • Frisch, D., Baron, J. (1988). Ambiguity and rationality. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1(3), 149-157. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.3960010303

  • March, J. G. (1994). A primer on decision making: How decisions happen. Free Press.

  • Tetlock, P. E. (1992). Accountability and complexity of thought. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(5), 974–984. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.63.5.974

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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