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Deciding while under pressure

Deciding while under pressure

When we make decisions, we are inevitably subjected to biases—that are all the more powerful when we are under pressure and the challenge is at its highest. How can you nonetheless secure the vital strategic decisions?


Merging with a competitor, investing in a strategic project, betting on an emerging technology, choosing a crisis-exit scenario, recruiting a right-hand collaborator… These are all decisions with high stakes, for which any mistake comes at a high price. Before deciding, business leaders often spend weeks thinking about them. Numbers are thoroughly reviewed, all hypotheses are considered, predictions are supported by the opinions of the best experts… Unfortunately, this does not prevent numerous disappointments. “Even the best among us regularly make predictable mistakes”, Olivier Sibony, a professor at HEC business school, explains in the introduction to his book Vous allez commettre une terrible erreur !

Indeed, even when we strive to analyze a decision with rigor and objectivity, we cannot thwart numerous biases. Academic literature has listed more than 200 of them! And some of these biases have the bad habit of worsening when under pressure.

Worse, even seasoned experts are subjected to them, while their opinion sometimes affects lives. Itiel Dror, a researcher in cognitive neurosciences at London University College, demonstrated it through an instructive experience. He presented series of fingerprints to forensic police scientists who had already analyzed them a few years before, without telling them that they had already identified them. He also gave them some (false) contextual indications: “The suspect has confessed”, “The suspect has a solid alibi”, etc. Very logically, this information should not have guided their judgment. Yet, in nearly one in five cases, experts contradicted their previous conclusions: the contextual information seriously distorted their analysis. Another experience, this time on judges, showed that they were influenced by the sentences requested by the prosecutors… even when these sentences were pulled out of a hat, which the judges knew!

Albeit difficult to eliminate, these biases can fortunately be counterbalanced, through a set of individual precautions and collective control mechanisms.

In this synopsis:
– Ensure quality assurance for your decisions
– Make your high-stakes decisions more reliable
– Collegial decisions: avoid pratices that neuter debates

Synopsis n.291b