The Unintended Consequences of Indecision
Issue 87, December 22, 2022
Should I stay or should I go? Should we pivot or stay the course? Are my next-gens going to quietly quit? How are we going to make more money in such a disruptive economy? Is everyone going to agree with me? Am I going to be held accountable? Do I even need to be accountable? And why is everything so damned hard all the time?
If you are a leader, champion of change or initiator of new ideas and solutions, we feel your frustration. On the other hand, if you intentionally create paralysis by analysis resulting from your own conscious or unconscious motivations and fears, you should be ashamed as your actions have far greater consequences than you realize.
Shifts in Time
In a cultural moment that worships data, celebrates analytics, and is led by the search-driven notion that the more you know the more you know (and you’ll be criticized if you don’t), we can easily become victims of overload paralysis.
Psychologist Barry Schwartz called it the paradox of choice. We believe it is much more than that. We have found that personal and professional defaults and biases deeply influence the strategies and tactics we present to others. Also, if we aren’t comfortable, we may defer to those around us to over-analyze a decision, project or solution. Or we may not be in agreement with the group. Or we feel it is going to take more energy and effort than we want to expend. Even worse, we may want to exercise our personal power and compete in gamesmanship just to see who wins.
Getting stuck in indecision can be distilled down to a simple thought: not using common sense. Whatever you call it, see, or describe it, the condition can cripple an individual and a leadership team and hold back an organization from innovating and growing, not to mention functioning in a healthy way.
We’ve all heard about analysis paralysis. Technically it’s the inability to make a decision based on overthinking a problem. As a result, no solution or forward action is decided on in a natural time frame (Wiki), if at all.
How many times have you or your team been excited about the next new shiny idea without completing the current shiny idea? Chasing the deal is fun; it keeps us entertained and offers the rush of exploring something new without consequences. The reality that comes from eventually having to execute on a decision is less exciting.
Always deferring to the new is another form of paralysis in moving forward.
It’s easy to lose your sense of direction or your North Star if there is too much chatter, static, surface noise, and energy directed to the idea of things rather than the reality of getting them done. And here’s the catch. Becoming mired in overthinking and overanalyzing creates anxiety, and anxiety contributes to poor decision-making and even more paralysis. It’s a double-edged sword.
And there’s another wrinkle. Traditional approaches to problem solving are often based on “personal reflection.” How often do we encounter a leader who thinks he or she knows all the answers? Understands the problem better than anyone else? And therefore, upon self-reflection determines the way forward, even if it is faulty. That’s the power of ego, suffering from the I-am-the-smartest-person-in-the-room-syndrome, conscious and unconscious bias and basically … insecurity. A command-and-control mentality is often a shield for being afraid of being challenged.
A Word About Self Reflection
Introspection is getting a refresh. Simply stated, self-reflection is “turning inward to search through how you feel, map how you think, and consider how you arrive at conclusions,” as defined by Gabriela Riccardi on Quartz. But Dr. Mitchell Green, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut says, “if you’re looking to understand your thinking, try taking a cue from ancient Greece. Instead of looking inwards, we should turn out.”
We are strong advocates of systems thinking and approaching problems holistically using the prism of a multidisciplinary, inclusive, and diverse team to tackle problem-solving. Permission to engage in healthy, open debate. That’s the Platonic/Socratic approach, a shoutout back to ancient Greece. Dr. Greene adds, “In arguing your ideas, rather than reflecting on them, you’ll meet challenges to your thinking and formulate responses. And the agility you’ll develop can spur you into stronger ideas.”
The wisdom of crowds is not a platitude. Great ideas come from the most surprising and sometimes least expected places.
If a situation is too complicated, you might get a free pass. But most paralysis can be explained by fear of: failure, causing an even bigger problem, not understanding how to make a decision, accountability, an additional or new responsibility, and losing face if the decision doesn’t pan out. Or we may simply not want to rock the boat and be required to take a defensive position with our teammates or leaders. In any of these scenarios, realistic expectations and results have been sidelined by inertia, propelled by insecurity.
There is also the problem of the mindset we have come to accept as “normal.” We have short attention spans; are insatiable for the new; and duck and cover our defaults out of fear or insecurity. Paralysis may also result by sidelining the problem and replacing it with something else. Indecision can also occur when the instigator of the idea, solution or decision moves on to a new role or a different organization. If you are an architect of analysis paralysis, for whatever reason, chances are you eventually breathe a sigh of relief when the rest of the team has moved on, bored or frustrated by inaction. Another unproductive outcome of contributing to analysis paralysis is a false sense of feeling safe from criticism and being shielded from accountability.
So, it’s important to find a balance between analysis of an exhaustive amount of input and common sense. We’re not suggesting extinct by instinct thinking, but rather a fusion of both objective science and human judgment.
Let’s unpack some of the key causes of analysis paralysis that results in indecision.
- A lack of experience among workers who do not have the natural resources to problem-solve.
- A rigid workplace culture with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Confusion can set in when a decision that demands flexibility doesn’t fit neatly into a black-and-white construct.
- An organizational culture that represses individuals from speaking up and making suggestions.
- A lack of confidence that disables the ability to make good decision. This also results in asking too many people for too much advice and not being able to process the input.
- Perfectionism that inhibits forward motion when decisions are risky, and outcomes cannot be explicitly predicted.
- The need to please; shutdowns can occur when a decision might negatively impact others.
- Too much experience or expertise that floods the thinking with too many options at every decision point.
- A waterfall of data that obfuscates the core issues.
- Over Googling that leads to an overload of the pros and cons of everything. Just do a Google search for analysis paralysis and you’ll get 54,500,000 results in 0.65 seconds.
- Bias, both conscious and subconscious.
What Happens When You’re Stuck?
First of all your performance is lowered when you’re in an indecisive state. According to Becky Kane writing for Ambition & Balance, “Psychologists Sian Beilock and Thomas Carr describe high performance as “a short-term memory system that in an active state maintains a limited amount of information with immediate relevance to the task at hand while preventing distractions from the environment and irrelevant thoughts.” Maybe that’s too much a mouthful. More to the point, our brains are programmed to only do one thing at a time sequentially. Information overload from multiple sources simultaneously causes us to task our short-term memory and, according to Belilock and Carr, the more you want to perform well on a task under pressure, the more your performance suffers. According to the two psychologists, “both anxiety and pressure generate distracting thoughts about the situation that take up part of the working memory capacity that would otherwise be used to complete the task. When you over-analyze a situation, the repetitive thoughts, anxiety, and self-doubt decrease the amount of working memory you have available to complete challenging tasks, causing your productivity to plummet even further.”
What else happens? Your creativity is stifled. Since we can only mentally process one thing at a time, when we are assaulted with too many data points and too much information, we can experience a meltdown emotionally and psychologically.
Here’s another consequence of indecision. Our will power is affected and decision fatigue sets in. According to Kane, think of willpower as a muscle. “The more you use it, the more it wears out, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. We have a limited supply of will power, so each decision that we make draws on the same limited supply of willpower.”
So, analysis paralysis can make you confused, unhappy, overwhelmed, and less confident. Analyzing every single option in the quest for the best choice may lead to an objectively better outcome in some situations, however, maximizing the process with floods of data and information ultimately leads to more anxiety and regret and less happiness and satisfaction with your decisions, adds Kane.
Getting Out of the Downward Spiral
- For starters, recognize what is happening.
- You can’t solve a problem talking to yourself. Get out of your own way. In fact, studies have shown that other people, even complete strangers, are better at predicting our future satisfaction with a particular decision than we are ourselves, according to Kane.
- Ask the right questions. Don’t get distracted by trick and off-point questions.
- Use the iterative process that remains objective to refine solutions and get sign-off and buy-in from the full project team with a consensual action plan.
- Not all decisions are created equal. Prioritize. Edit. Curate. Conserve your mental energy.
- Timing is everything. Identify your best working time in the day and don’t push yourself when you’re not at peak mental performance. And resist the pressure of self-imposed deadlines.
- Keep your eye on the prize. Stick with your main objective and don’t get sidetracked. Sounds simplistic? Overthinking often comes from taking side trips and getting sucked into rabbit holes to avoid dealing with the core issue at hand. Mindfulness, active listening, and the discipline of full attention are tools to combat paralysis.
- Be aware. Remain focused, exercise active listening, stay open to constructive criticism in team or group settings and recognize unnecessary diversions. Don’t fear speaking up, call out any misdirected or deflective words or actions, and use your own personal discipline to stay on track.
Moving and Motivating
At 2040 we work with clients to recognize and work through paralysis. A common problem is the group think situation. Over-analysis quickly creates paralysis when there are so many different beliefs, biases, and roadblocks set up to protect each individual’s turf. And then there are influencer team members (generally who use a lot of airtime to voice their opinions) who claim to connect all the issues and raise a red flag that really is a false flag.
Group dynamics are complex. We have the experience and expertise to help teams solve problems and avoid indecision, Decisions need active listeners and engaged team members to process, analyze and cull relevant information to get to a decision point. We can help you get there.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.