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Emma Judge, MAPP, is the founder of Positive Organizations, applying the principles of Positive Psychology to the world of work through coaching, leadership development and links with academia. Full bio.

Emma's articles are here.

Organizations are obsessed by the quick decision. Meetings have to have actions as an outcome, and that means decisions have to be made there and then. We all get used to hearing a presentation or proposal and having to decide.

Last Sunday was a warm balmy evening here in the UK (yes, really) and my husband had been outside for a good hour indulging one of his few vices – smoking a cigar. He always returns from these little islands of peace and contemplation energized, constructive and calm. But what was interesting about this particular evening was that, knowing he had a taxing week ahead of him, he had taken not just his cigar outside, but pen and paper and thoughts of the week ahead. His comment on his return was that in 30 minutes he had made some decisions and thought through some ideas that would normally have taken him three hours, and that he felt those decisions and ideas were of a significantly higher quality than they would have been on Friday evening when he left the office. He hadn’t been thinking about them all weekend – and yet they just flowed on to the paper.

Leaving the unconscious to its own devices...

As David Pollay discussed in his article a few days ago, Dijksterhuis & Nordgren suggest that complex decisions are much better handled by the unconscious than by the conscious. The suggestion is that the unconscious mind, when left to its own devices, makes better decisions.

If this is true, then are organizations enabling people to make the best decisions they can make? Given the sense of urgency and pace, the need for action and analytical problem solving so inherent in most organizations, how can we “park” decisions and come back to them once our amazingly powerful brains have done their thing?

There are so many examples of how this process is hindered – “away days” where all we do is concentrate on one problem, decision by committee meaning that the decision has to be made in the meeting, presentations designed to analytically represent a situation and recommend a solution – all to be processed in the moment.

This, by the way, is only one aspect of the Theory of Unconscious Thought being developed by Dijksterhuis & Nordgren. Their latest paper is well worth a read and suggests that we have some work to do if we want to optimize our organizational decision making abilities.

It seems to me that the really smart organizations are those that allow time to pass between the discussion of a situation and a decision – this encourages people to move on from an issue before it is resolved, and to return to it later. It may even be that providing “distractions” at work in terms of the physical environment or the activities people can do could also help us make better decisions. Going to the gym at lunchtime or playing chess for half an hour might allow our unconscious to get on with the business of running the business. It isn’t hard – but it is different.

Dijksterhuis, A. & Nordgren, L. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 95-109. Abstract.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M., Nordren, L., & van Baaren, R. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311(5763), 1005-1007. Abstract.

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Kathryn Britton 16 May 2007 - 8:54 am

What an interesting thought! I had been thinking that there was too much slow decision-making — too many long conversations without it being clear who was supposed to decide what.

Maybe all decisions aren’t created equal. I think someone — Kahneman? Dijksterhuis? — differentiates between decisions that involve a small enough set of information bits that they can be effectively decided rationally and others that involve sifting through lots and lots of bits of information where the unconscious performs better. What was it, 75 pieces of information about 3 apartments in one of the Dijksterhuis articles?

I had an experience today that made your story click. We’re sponsoring a day-long conference for Women in Technology with about 150 invited participants. One of the people invited responded “I’d like to know who can take a full day away from schedules.” It made me sad, not just because she is missing a chance to network and learn from others, but also because she is missing the chance to step back and let her unconscious work. I’ve found that taking a day away can make a lot of things start falling into place.


Emma Judge 16 May 2007 - 9:41 am

Hi Kathryn,

The difference between circular discussion (where most people have probably already made a decision and are just trying to get to some consensus) and the actual process of reaching their own decision is an important distinction and would need thought as organisations figure out how to give people time to NOT consider.

You’re right the paper differentiates between different types of decisions – I just focused on the complex ones (which would include most business decisions, in my experience). It’s a great paper and hopefuly you can access it from the weblink in the article.

Your conference sounds great – maybe you could ‘super boost’ the quality of thinkin about the issues on the day by sending out some questions in advance – not for action, but just for people to store away and let their subconscious work on before they come.

Bruce 17 May 2007 - 10:12 am

Hello all.

It is experientially vital advice for people to hear. I was recently talking about change management to a group of 20 or so community leaders of voluntary organisations and offered them three options for change and decision: Entrepreneurial, Survival and Morphogenic. The first two we’re familiar with but the last is like a life line to most people. A hallmark of it is slowness. (More here: http://www.embody.co.uk/index.php/you-dont-need-a-life-coach-you-need-a-spiritual-director/)

I’ve also had fun building a dynamic decision making tool which attempts to put the best research around into a series of intelligently branching questions. Try it for yourself http://www.embody.co.uk/index.php/how-to-make-decisions-and-choose-the-right-option/

Thanks for a great site.

Emma Judge 17 May 2007 - 10:33 am

You may have already read it but the book “Synchronicity – the inner path to Leadership” by Jaworski is a wonderful book which would resonate with your Morphogenic approach.

It isn’t always about taking the urgency out of the sitiuation (although often that can be done). When a quick decision is needed wouldn’t it be good to know more about how to let the subconscious do the work – even when there isn’t much time.

Dave Shearon 18 May 2007 - 7:12 am

Nice post, Emma! Recently I gave a presentation with Bill Robertson to a group of school superintendents. Bill had a wonderful visual of a rider and an elephant swimming, and he used it to talk about Haidt’s metaphor. As he was doing it, I realized that most of the participants were seeing the rider as “reason” or “thinking” and the elephant as “emotion” or “feeling.” I checked and that was what they were thinking. So, I used Dijksterhuis’ work to explain that the elephant also does a great deal of our analytical work also. And, as always, the elephant is fast, powerful, virtually effortless, and mostly invisible to the rider!

Emma Judge 18 May 2007 - 8:50 am

I think you make a really important point – the unconscious almost becomes devalued, certainly in business circles as it seen as ‘non-rational’, not following rules, acting on instinct or intuition – Dijksterhuis’s work helps to redress that balance.

Gigi 23 May 2007 - 5:53 pm

Emma, you made me think about my good friend who works at Google. They provide many ‘distractions’ that I believe help transform the work environment and prove fruitful for creative thinking due to enabling the unconcsious mind to play. They include: Massages, free healthy food, colorful atmosphere (e.g. lava lamps, blue walls, red panels, bouncy balls as chairs), open floor plan so you’re exposed to numerous people in a very flat modeled organization. And, then there’s a game room with tvs, ping pong, fooze ball and a lego room where you can design and keep your lego creations. Plus there are the physical aspects, basketball court, swiming pool, gym, etc.

Emma Judge 24 May 2007 - 8:46 am

Hi Gigi,

These are all great things to do – distractions which also encourage physical health, creativity and freindships are all good for productivity and well-being.

I’d hope, though, that organisations could do even more – in order for people to make better quality decisions the way decisions are made needs to change. Rather than getting faster with blackberries and email ensuring immediate responses, they may need to get slower !


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