This is a guest post by Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc. Her latest book, Clarity First, outlines specific actions to dramatically improve organizational and individual performance.
Most leaders agree, it’s important to have clear ideas about the issues that matter to them and their organizations. Yet, leaders are praised far more often for making quick decisions than for thinking clearly.
In such a fast-paced, noisy world, leaders understandably feel the pressure to think and act fast—but this can be to their detriment. Today, more so than ever, it’s critical to give oneself the time needed to assess a situation fully, gather on-point information, and develop a thoughtful position.
Not convinced? Think of it this way: clear thought is a precursor to making good decisions, acting decisively, solving problems, and seizing opportunities in a way that consistently fulfills the organization’s goals.
But, as most leaders will attest, this is much easier said than done. You have to be patient and possess disciplined thinking habits.
Here are three ways to start:
Mindfulness means paying attention purposefully, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It’s a state of being that allows its practitioners to lead with greater clarity by developing a calmer and more focused mind. It introduces a pause between receipt of information and your reaction to it, and it slows thinking processes enough that they become observable.
Mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation is a trending topic in leadership and management literature for good reason: there’s a growing body of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness meditation changes the brain in a powerful, performance-enhancing way. It develops areas of your brain responsible for self-regulation, allowing you to more effectively place your attention where you want it, regulate your mood, and manage your response to information.
Here’s another bonus of mindfulness: it helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.
“Mindfulness helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.” -Karen Martin
All leaders must make courageous decisions. It goes with the job. You understand that in certain situations, some difficult and timely decisions must be made in the best interests of the entire organization. Such decisions require a firmness, authority, and finality that will not please everyone.
ADVICE: HOW TO BE DECISIVE
“I think everybody who creates something is doing something audacious. Because the most difficult time is when you are starting from scratch with no financial backing—just an idea. So true audaciousness comes about with just those people who have the pluck and the courage to say, ‘Screw it; let’s do it.’” -Richard Branson, Virgin Group chairman
There are a few truths when it comes to decision making, according to Anna Johansson, a business consultant:
Logical decisions tend to trump emotional ones. Since emotions can sometimes make us biased or see things in an inaccurate light, basing a decision on logic, rather than on a current emotional state, usually gives you more objective information to make the final call.
Thought-out decisions tend to trump impulsive ones. Because you’ve spent more time on the problem, you’ll understand it more thoroughly and be better versed in the variables that might arise from any possible route.
Flexible decisions tend to trump concrete ones. Things change frequently, so making a decision that allows for some eventual degree of flexibility usually offers more adaptable options than a decision that’s absolute or concrete.
These aren’t absolute rules, however. For example, many entrepreneurs trust their gut when making decisions—and indeed, instinct can sometimes beat over-analytical thinking.
“Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.” -Sheryl Sandberg
Here are some strategies you can use in almost any decision making process to ensure that you make the best choice, according to Johansson:
Step Away From the Problem
Scientific research suggests that distancing yourself from a problem can help you face it in a more objective way. For example, let’s say you’re trying to choose between two different opportunities, and you can’t tell which one is better for you. Instead of remaining in your own frame of mind, consider yourself as an outside observer, such as a mentor giving advice or a fly on the wall. Removing yourself in this way helps you filter out some of your cognitive biases and lean you toward a more rational decision.
Research: distancing yourself from a problem allows you to face it objectively.
Most of us end up being lousy decision makers when we try to force a decision in a moment, or push through to a final choice after first learning about a situation. In some high-pressure environments, this is a must, but it isn’t the most effective or rewarding way to do things. Instead, accuracy and reliability in decision making tends to increase if you first give yourself some time to decompress and collect yourself—even if it’s just a few minutes. This may also help you remove yourself from the problem, knocking out two of these strategies in one fell swoop.
Know That There Is No Right Answer
You can stress yourself out trying to pin down the answer that’s objectively correct, if you believe one such answer exists. Instead, remind yourself that there’s almost never an objectively correct answer. “All you can do is make the decision that’s the best for you at the time, and it’s probably going to work out okay either way,” Johansson says.
Remember the lessons you’ve learned from the past, but don’t let your past experiences affect what you choose in the present. For example, if you’ve paid a hundred dollars a month for a service that isn’t getting you anywhere, you may be tempted to continue simply for the reason that you’ve already spent thousands of dollars. This skewed line of reasoning is an example of an escalation bias, in which you’re hesitant to cut your losses. You can’t change the past, so instead, look to the present and future.
Leadership Tip: don’t let your past experiences affect what you choose in the present.
You can overanalyze a problem as much as you like, but it probably isn’t going to help anything. It’s just going to bring up new complications, force you to second-guess yourself, and possibly double back on a decision you’ve already made. All of these will make the process more excruciating and will make you unsatisfied with whatever decision you land on. Instead, pick an option early and fully commit to it.
There’s no perfect way to make a decision, and there are very few situations in which a decision is ever “right.” However, with these strategies in tow, you’ll be well-equipped to make more rational, complete, and best of all, satisfying decisions in your life.
Culture is established by both communication and action. People will listen to what you say, but they will closely watch and emulate what you do. Action on large, highly visible initiatives will certainly make priorities and culture clear in a big way. However, it takes time to formulate and communicate large initiatives, plus it often takes time for the results to be achieved and visible. Action on small initiatives while larger actions are in progress can be very effective.
“Culture is established by communication and action.” -Bruce Rhoades
Good leaders interact with the organization at all levels and with cross-functional teams. Many times during these interactions, opportunities to take action on smaller issues will present themselves. These small opportunities are issues, changes, or decisions that can be addressed by a few of those directly involved without much involvement from the leader. They can solve small customer irritations, eliminate frustrations and inefficiencies in a process or a department, drive a decision or make a localized change. I am a big proponent of taking proper action on selected small opportunities. One of my favorite sayings is, “Never underestimate the effect of taking action on small things.”
Here is why:
“Never underestimate the effect of taking action on small things.”
10 Major Benefits of Taking Action On Small Things
Accelerates Empowerment and Learning: Action on small issues will build organizational confidence, get quick results and allow people to learn from mistakes that have smaller consequences and reduced visibility. It helps people cultivate their leadership.
Teaches Delegation: When done correctly, implementing action on small changes teaches others how to delegate, how to decide who needs to be involved in developing action and approval, how to form a collaborative team and how to involve and grow others.
Improves Accountability and Decisiveness: When a small team is empowered to take action on smaller decisions, they become more comfortable with accountability and find it easier to make decisions. Using smaller initiatives also provides decision-making experience for more people at many levels in the organization.
Boosts Career Satisfaction: Since many small actions are localized to specific processes or departments, they can help remove daily irritations that hinder department or operational processes. At the same time, people learn that they can assume more responsibility and make a difference for the organization.
Enhances Collaboration and Team Building: With more small actions, a larger number of people are able to participate in collaborative problem solving and work together with a variety of defined roles to implement change. The benefit is that more people in the organization can gain experience, grow and achieve results.
“Taking action on small things rapidly creates an empowered workplace.” -Bruce Rhoades
Improves Communication: When a leader is able to initiate many small actions at different levels of the organization, or with various teams, it helps to “flatten” the organization, cut through bureaucracy and allow a larger population to see the leader in action. People become more comfortable communicating with the leader and each other. Additionally, small initiatives to implement change can get more people communicating who normally would not do so.
Mark, it’s great to have a chance to talk with you as everyone is thinking about New Year’s resolutions: how to make them, but more importantly, how to keep them. Your book is a blueprint for success and is packed with principles, ideas, methods, and specific actions all designed to change your life. We can’t cover even a fraction of them, but I want to ask you about just a few.
“The best leaders keep their minds positively focused.” –Mark Divine
Let’s start with visualization. You put it this way: “Visualize Powerfully.” How do you personally visualize your goals and your success?
I learned in the SEALs the importance of winning the mission (goal) in my mind before stepping off the ramp into the dark of the night.
What this means for me is a three step process:
Go after well defined targets
First, I ensure that the targets I go after are the right targets and are super well defined so I don’t waste valuable time and energy chasing impossible dreams or improbable projects. In the past I often had poorly defined new year goals that quickly fell by the wayside. That happened because they were the wrong targets, or poorly defined to begin with. I outline a powerful process for preventing this and selecting the right targets in my book.
Imagine what victory looks like
Second, I imagine what victory looks like for my target / goal. I see it as clearly and with as much detail as possible in my mind’s eye. In fact I have built an imaginary training space I call my ‘Mind Gym’ where I do this inner work. In the gym I see the outcomes of the goal, see myself achieving it and what my life is like after. I see myself as the type of person who CAN achieve the goal and possessing all the skills and knowledge necessary to crush it.
Review your goals daily
Third, I visit my mind gym daily to review the visualization while tackling the tasks and preliminary steps toward accomplishing the goal. This strengthens the image and eventually leads to greater confidence and certainty of mission success.
“Decisiveness is a must for anyone seeking to gain momentum toward their critical targets.” –Mark Divine
You talk about the importance of breathing in your book. Why is it so important and would you share one of your breathing exercises?
The Benefits of Deep Breathing
In a firefight or any intense situation, I learned to perform better by controlling my physiology and psychology. The key was learning how to breathe more powerfully. It is the first and most important of what I call the ‘big four of mental toughness’ skills. Deep diaphragmatic breathing, through the nose, brings two immediate and critical benefits for mission success:
First, It is a stress release mechanism because it stimulates the automatic nervous system’s calming function. We are riddled with stressors coming at us from all angles, many self-imposed, and this breathing technique slows down our heart rate, calms our body and allows us to get back in control of our physiology so we can direct it towards performance.
Second, it centers us by narrowing the range of our critical mind’s thought patterns. The concentration required to breathe deeply means you are now focusing on health and stress release. This triggers positive feelings and thoughts, and the mind slows down so we can direct it towards the important tasks leading to success.
The training technique is simple, called the ‘Three part breath.’ Begin by exhaling all the air from your lungs, then inhale deep into your belly . . . your belly will move out. When the lower part of your lungs are full (your belly is ‘full’), then activate your diaphragm to fill the middle of your lungs. When that is full, then use your upper chest to fill the top of the lungs. The exhale is then done in reverse order, and the whole breath cycle should be a five count inhale and five count exhale. Over time you will do this naturally and unconsciously in one step, versus three steps. It will help you stay positively focused on your important goals in 2014 AND have great benefit for your overall health and peace of mind.