3 excellent books about how people make decisions

On the recommendation of a Twitter friend I recently read (or, rather, listened to the audio editions of) three excellent books about how people make decisions:

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

All three contain countless nuggets of recent scientific insight into behavioral economics, or why people and markets behave as we do, as explained by three very cogent thinkers. All three focused on defining the abilities, strengths and weaknesses of different brain areas; how human impulses mesh and are sorted and acted on; predictable biases of both “rational” and “emotional” sorts; and, what we can do to avoid—and manipulate—biases and errors. Interestingly, all three authors acknowledged the increasing difficulty academics are having in drawing sharp lines between “rational” and “emotional” behavior when confronted with contemporary knowledge about brain function, but all three attempted to draw distinctions between “rational” and “emotional” decisions nonetheless—with varying degrees of success.

Playing poker

Playing poker well involves combining “rational” and “emotional” decisions and knowing when to do which.


The book I enjoyed the most was Jonah Lehrer’s, which I could oversimplify by describing as “neuroscience discovers B.F. Skinner” because of his focus on learned behavior. But perhaps that’s because Lehrer’s approach best fit my personal preconceptions about behavior—and the fact that B.F. Skinner was still working at the psych department where I received my undergraduate degree in psychology way back when I was in school.

Ariely’s book is premised on the idea that traditional economic theory is full of crap when it comes to human behavior because of economists’ bizarre assumption that people behave “rationally” with respect to economic decisions. But this failing of traditional economics was already obvious as far as I’m concerned, so Ariely’s attitude that he was discovering this for the first time in each chapter became a bit tedious, while his preoccupation with promoting his own research—and somewhat over-the-top conclusions about the implications of his research—took away from my enjoyment of his book.

Some intriguing examples of how decisions are made that were examined by one or more of the authors include:

  • Dopamine supplements that are given to people with Parkinsons disease to give them better control over their own bodies’ movements frequently develop a counterintuitive side effect: a powerful gambling addiction. The addiction ceases when the dopamine treatments end. This example (among many others) points to the significance of dopamine and the brain’s wiring in decision making—and the fine balance of the system.
  • In a blind taste test of jam on sale at supermarkets, jams which had received low ratings in a taste test received higher ratings when tasters were simultaneously asked to explain why they gave the rating they did. This demonstrates the influence of second-guessing over “gut-level” decisions, and raises questions about when one mode might be preferable to the other.
  • A commercial airline pilot experienced the total failure of the hydraulic systems normally needed to steer his plane, and had to make a series of rapid, counterintuitive decisions, sometimes defying his own instincts, to manage an emergency landing. Another pilot experienced an apparent landing gear malfunction and crashed after using up all of the aircraft’s fuel without solving the problem—although it turned out the landing gear was fine, it was just a warning light failure. These scenarios amplify the importance of choosing when to “trust your instincts” or “follow the standard procedure” versus choosing to think outside the box.
  • An MIT physicist who is now working on Higgs Boson research started gambling professionally as a young man because his mathematical prowess gave him a somewhat unusual ability to “count cards”. Over time he became one of the best poker players in the world because he learned to consciously make the choice between playing the odds and trusting his gut, and to switch back and forth between these modes as the situation requires.
  • Doctors are officially discouraged from using MRI data to treat bad backs because they have difficulty ignoring, and restraining themselves from trying to treat, “abnormalities” they find which aren’t actually causing any problems for their patients, because such “treatment” frequently made their patients worse.

I highly recommend all three books, and particularly the Lehrer book, for inspiration when communicating with others and as a challenge to your own assumptions about yourself, especially in marketing and leadership situations. Ultimately they may help you understand, predict, and—with luck—choose the best mode (intuitive or mindful) for particular decisions—a tall order given the difficulty that highly trained experts such as doctors and commercial pilots sometimes have doing the same.

If you can lead, you can be effective in social media

Trading fives - in Jazz leadership moves aroundI recently participated in an in-person discussion about leadership attended by a number of people I know through social media. Because the instigators of the discussion, Pam Hoelzle and Ethan Yarbrough, publicized the event online, the composition of the group and the conversation itself were flavored by a social media perspective. The discussion delivered several valuable takeaways, but one idea that stood out because it was useful and a little counterintuitive was this: Effective social media participation is like effective leadership.

By “effective social media participation” I mean purposefully interacting with people via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media to find people and information we need to accomplish business and personal goals.

By “effective leadership” I mean motivating high performing people to work towards a common purpose, whether or not we are are the “manager” of those folks (one can lead by influence even when one isn’t in a position of authority).

During our discussion three common threads came out that connect effective social media participation and effective leadership: selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Selection. In both social media and leadership we benefit by choosing our contributors carefully.

In the context of social media I often call this “filtering”. A LOT of potentially useful information is Tweeted, blogged, Buzzed, or otherwise published by people analyzing (or simply regurgitating) what they discover. In fact, there is so much of this information, and meta-information, there isn’t nearly enough time to skim it all efficiently much less read it all. After participating in social media for a time–if it wasn’t obvious to us from the beginning–most of us recognize that just because someone Tweets brilliantly and has a large following doesn’t mean we’ll find the time to read their stuff very often (sorry, @StephenFry). Social media is best managed like a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet: even something that looks very tasty won’t make it onto our plates if taking it would require sacrificing something we desire even more. In social media an information source must be consistently relevant and efficient for our purposes to be useful, not just beautiful in our sight.

Similarly, in a leadership context an impressive resume is just a starting point when determining whether there’s a good fit between a potential team member and a position on our team. Which is why personal relationships and recommendations from people we trust are so valuable when recruiting team members–and when choosing social media sources. One must be selective to be effective.

Delegation is the powerful outcome of good contributor selection in both social media and leadership. Whether social media networks or work groups, ideally we implicitly trust our teams to produce quality results for us. Otherwise we’re tempted to second guess our contributors, which deprives them of the rewards of our recognition, duplicates effort, and leads us down the path of information overload. Like we trust the curator of an art gallery to collect and display a worthy collection or art, like we trust the editors of our favorite publications to discover and accurately portray stories for us, like we trust our auto mechanics to keep our cars running, we should trust our teams to do their jobs. If and when we don’t feel we can rely on our team, whether we’re working as a leader or as a participant in social media, that’s a not-so-subtle sign that we will benefit from improving our approach towards selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Reciprocation. Both social media and leadership require reciprocation to be sustainable. Other people contribute to our successes, and we contribute to theirs. That’s the nature of the bargain. The biggest mistake I see would-be social media “power users” and would-be leaders make is not focusing enough on what success looks like for their team members. A true leader (as distinguished from a “manager”) provides team members with what they value above and beyond their pay checks, for example, by encouraging them to take responsibilities that will help them develop personally and professionally. And just as leadership requires more than a checkbook and a list of instructions for employees to follow, social media mastery requires more than pumping out branded messages to subscribers. Social media rock stars listen to what is said in their networks, recognize needs, and respond by offering referrals, links, analysis, or whatever else they have to help meet those needs.

Vision. Last but not least: to be effective in either social media or leadership we must communicate a clear, consistent vision that lets people know what we want them to contribute, and thus (directly or indirectly) what they will be rewarded for contributing. If we can’t sustain the insight we need to define and communicate our vision we’ll have a difficult time selecting people who can contribute to it, and neither we nor our team members will be particularly good at providing what the other needs.

One final thought. As a leader, or as a participant in social media, we get out what we put in. Just as putting time, focus and energy into leadership is essential to be an effective leader, putting time, focus and energy into social media is essential to be effective in social media. Those of us who believe leadership or social media are among our core responsibilities are thus obligated to make studying and practicing our craft a high priority for so long as we wish to be effective.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the conversation, including but not limited to: Moderators @pamhoelzle and @Ethany; graphic interpreter @pdobrowolski; hosts @petechee and @alyssamag; and @jdkovarik, @colleencar, @ShaunaCausey, @coolguygreg, @cherylnichols, @RJHSeattle, @pmcmortgages, @blainemillet, and @shannonevans (there were other folks not mentioned here but I don’t have their details). The opinions in this post are my own, and these folks may or may not agree with what is written here, but either way I benefited from their contributions.

A 1 page (2 sided) consensus “cheat sheet”

My previous post describes the benefits and limitations of the five-degree consensus process that I recommend to clients who use consensus decision making as part of their repertoire of business skills.

In this entry I offer you a downloadable chart plus a condensed, one-page explanation of how to use a consensus scale which you may want to print out for your own use or e-mail to friends and co-workers for their use. (If you’re really hard core, print the chart on special white-board paper for laser printers. Then you can mark and erase right on it as much as you want.)

DOWNLOAD IT HERE: > Using a five-degree consensus scale to reach consensus: the cheat sheet (in PDF Acrobat format)

To download it to your computer, right-click with your mouse (or on a Mac, option-click).

When, again, is a consensus process particularly appropriate? See my post from December 8, 2005 for a more detailed answer to this question. In general, a consensus process may be valuable when:

  • you want a proposal examined carefully. A consensus process pushes people proposing a course of action to clarify their reasoning and pushes others to wrap their minds around the proposal, encouraging everyone to understand it, ask questions, and offer input.
  • you fear weak follow-through, and thus you want to secure support up front or quit before setting a decision up for failure. A consensus process pushes everyone in a group to assume responsibility for a decision, including follow-through down the road.
  • you aren’t in a desperate hurry. Although a rapid decision may be reached by consensus, for speed alone you’re frequently better off assigning a qualified solo decision maker.

A simple consensus building process

A simple consensus process can reveal whether the members of a group agree about a proposed course of action while promoting discussion that can lead to agreement.

Polling a group using a five degree consensus scale “takes the temperature” of a group, instantly demonstrating when a proposal requires no further consideration either because it already has universal support or because opposition is overwhelming. When consensus for or against a proposal does not already exist, the scale identifies whose concerns need to be addressed and their degree of difference from others in the group, so that an effort can be made to close the gap or abandon the attempt to reach consensus.

Productive discussion is encouraged because it’s easy and acceptable for group members to express uncertainties, differences of opinion, and alternative approaches without appearing hostile, disruptive, or uncooperative towards the group or the group’s leader. Consensus is not a foregone conclusion using the scale, but the give-and-take atmosphere it facilitates helps with obtaining buy-in, discovering new options and changes in the plan, and enabling movement towards or away from support for a proposal.

Many consensus scales are in use utilizing hand gestures, cards, colors, or numerical tallies. The simplest might be the three-degrees scale such as “hot, neutral, cold” or “yes, maybe, no,” or “go, caution, stop,” but I find that a slightly wider range is useful in most cases. The following is a five-point scale I have adapted from a system sometimes called “shades of consensus” or “levels of consensus.”

After a plan of action has been proposed, each participant in the decision chooses a number from one to five to signal their degree of support. These numbers signal roughly the following:

      1: Yes. Let’s do it.
      2: OK. It’s good enough.
      3: Maybe. I have questions.
      4: Wait. Can we change it?
      5: No. Let’s do something else.

After everyone has weighed-in, all ones and twos show consensus support for a plan, although time might be well spent clarifying what, if anything, could be changed to bring twos up to ones. All fours and fives shows consensus opposition to a plan, although discussion may still be useful to generate a shared sense of why a proposal was rejected and to spur thinking about alternatives. Threes suggest more explanation is needed.

Some number of ones or twos alongside fours or fives demonstrates a lack of clear consensus and need for further discussion or in-depth exploration of options, if consensus remains the group’s goal. Polling a group with a consensus scale is an iterative process, which is to say, multiple polls can be taken to discover movement in consensus rankings, or lack thereof, after discussion.

It’s worth emphasizing that the whole point of this is to walk through the process, not to achieve a pre-determined outcome. What is more, deadlock is an entirely acceptable result using this technique. Using a consensus scale does not guarantee that a particular proposal will ultimately receive either consensus support or opposition. A strong contrary position taken by even one participant is enough to deny “consensus decision” status – but of course, there are always alternative proposals, and alternative ways to arrive at decisions besides consensus.

When a group is deadlocked, the value of a consensus process is that it reveals the existence of the deadlock and, hopefully, the reasons for it. Typically this leads to a new proposals which address the concerns on both sides of the consensus chart in a way which unifies everyone.

If a consensus can’t be reached, but a decision must be made regardless, it may become necessary to abandon the effort to reach consensus and to use another decision-making style instead. For example, if a board must arrive at a certain decision within a certain time frame, a failure to reach consensus may mean that a simple majority vote will be required instead. Or in a business group, it may become necessary for the senior person in the hierarchy to make an executive decision, delegate, or otherwise choose a different course for decision making. Either way, a group should begin a consensus decision-making process knowing the consequences it will face for failing to come to a decision, whether that means accepting responsibility for no decision being delivered or understanding that the decision will pass out of their hands and on to another process or person.

Regardless of the ultimate result, a consensus scale makes it a no-brainer for a diverse group of people to express and develop individual levels of understanding and enthusiasm, while making it easy for leaders to gauge the support a proposal will receive if it is adopted.

Balancing cost and quality in decision-making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (just over 4 minutes listening time–it’s a 2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


There is an apparent conflict between making decisions efficiently, which is to say, using a low-cost process for decision making, and making efficient decisions, the decisions that are most likely to lead to good quality results.

Decision process is important in several ways. For instance, delegation is an efficient decision-making process when it reduces the number of people involved and thus the total number of hours put into making a decision. This is true whether or not the person given decision-making authority has the most expertise in the area of the decision. Delegation also has potential intrinsic benefits. It can build decision makers’ expertise and help them develop in their organizational roles. In large part one learns to be a better leader by leading, and a salesperson by selling, and so on. Thus, even if the decision arrived at by a delegatee could have been improved upon by someone with more expertise, an organization benefits by using delegation as a process because of the time savings and the delegatee’s expertise building and role development.

But there can be costs associated with quick decisions, and decisions involving fewer people, as compared to slower decisions and decisions involving more people.

Decision quality, as well as the decision makers themselves, may benefit immensely when goals, assumptions, and alternatives are fully discussed. Even the most experienced, most qualified, most respected, and most intuitively gifted decision makers will face decisions that are outside of their expertise, or for which they lack adequate information, or which fall into their personal blind spots. Properly framed challenges help decision makers “check their math” and discover answers that may have been hidden.

Or as Richard Doherty was quoted by USA Today as saying about the turnaround at Apple when Steve Jobs resumed its leadership: “[H]e asked these amazing questions, and the company started to transform.”

Answering questions also helps decision makers articulate their decisions to the degree necessary to sketch a vision that others in the organization can get behind and follow through on. As well, those who ask questions develop their domain expertise, and refine their art as decision makers, by running through the mental workout of formulating and presenting questions.

But decisions which include the input and approval of larger numbers of people can be inefficient from a process perspective. Learning curves, egos, politics, or simply the sheer volume of people who want to be heard can make group processes extremely time consuming.

Your best practice will be to remain aware of the potential tradeoffs between efficient decisions and efficient decision-making. Make strategic choices somewhere between the two extremes, accept the potential downsides of your choices, and be prepared to deal with pitfalls should they appear.

Less talk and more action

Too much talk, not enough action: how to switch it around


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 9 minutes listening time–it’s a 4 MB download, which will take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


In certain organizations people are always going to meetings where practically nothing gets decided. All talk and no action–what’s going on?

Action isn’t always better than talk. Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to do nothing. But when action is needed, or when talk is getting in the way, it’s time to scan for obstacles like these in your organizational culture.

1. Fear of accountability. Accountability means decision makers experience the consequences of their decisions. Placing responsibility for decisions in the hands of people who are properly motivated by the consequences will lead to better decisions over the long haul. But in the real world things often don’t turn out as planned. When an organizational culture resorts to blame and personal attacks, people won’t want responsibility for decisions. The personal risk is too high. Even when action or innovation is desperately needed, decisions are avoided or deferred. The status quo, in which nobody has to stick their neck out, offers a relatively safe harbor for individuals fearing punishment and retaliation, regardless of the long-term negative impact on the organization.

Where fear of accountability may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How do we cope with others’ mistakes? What response to mistakes would be the best for our organization and our people over the long run?

The mistakes made by the team responsible for a bank’s web site and the research and development team for a toy company, for example, might seem rather different. But everyone who has had more than a cursory level of business decision-making responsibility has made mistakes. And experimentation, which means accepting the risk that results won’t always turn out the way we want them to, is a powerful tool. So the more important question is not whether someone has made mistakes, but how they handle their mistakes. (“Fail quickly and move on” is one successful CEO’s advice.)

2. Defaulting to consensus. Consensus means getting input from everyone in a group and requiring unanimous consent before moving forward. Consensus can be a powerful mechanism for motivating every member of a team and for uncovering and resolving hidden issues that team members might otherwise let lie. However, overuse of consensus can be cumbersome, impractical, and enervating to teams bogged down by too many details.

Where overuse of consensus may be a problem, key questions to ask are: What is important about using consensus for a particular decision? What would be the benefits of taking a particular decision out of a consensus process?

To find a healthy balance, rather than relying on one form of decision making for every issue, try experimenting with different decision-making mechanisms periodically, such as consensus on one end and veto-free delegation to one person’s judgment on the other.

3. Boredom. Some people attend meetings simply because they don’t have enough to do, or don’t like their assigned work. While ambitious people often take on extra work in order to get ahead, projects can get bogged down when too many people are involved, and everyone’s work suffers if individuals or teams split their focus too many ways.

When boredom may be a problem, key questions to ask are: Whose contributions are necessary at this stage for this project? What is important about their participation? What are good ways to deal with someone’s boredom?

If someone is bored enough with their present job, it’s time for them to change. Neither they nor the organization benefit if they aren’t focused on the work already on their plate.

4. A meeting culture. In some organizations the best way for people to get noticed and get ahead is by participating in meetings. In a certain highly competitive corporate culture I know, people believe they receive credit for what they do only through the political act of presenting their work in person at a meeting, lest their contributions be ignored or even credited to someone else.

When a meeting culture may be a problem, key questions to ask are: How are careers and meetings connected? What’s important about this linkage? How could this connection be improved?

Competitiveness in an organization’s culture can lead to great strides for both individuals and teams. But competition can work against an organization’s long-term best interests if it encourages people to hold each other back while pursuing personal quests for recognition.

5. Inconsistent leadership support. An organization’s leaders may pride themselves on their motivational skills even while their on-again off-again support for innovators sabotages personal initiative across the organization.

If partially completed projects are an issue, ask these questions: How have our leaders actually rewarded action? How consistent is support for innovation according to people on the receiving end?

Consistent support gives innovators the confidence to follow through and the incentive to try again, while giving others the courage to take the plunge.

I want to give special thanks to Don Lange, owner of Straightface HQ, a 3D visual design shop in Seattle, for the spirited conversation that lead to this entry. Don’s background includes working as a lighting specialist for Hollywood film productions on which, he tells me, teams of highly autonomous production experts meet just often enough with just the right people to stay coordinated while working super-efficiently in parallel. So if you are looking for people who understand high levels of delegation, pay attention if you see “Hollywood” on a resume.

When to use Consensus for decision making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (about 10 minutes listening time–it’s a 4.6 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


Consensus decision making pays for itself when it delivers robust decisions backed by everyone in a group.

Business decision makers have a wide range of decision-making processes to choose from. Both the speed and the quality of decisions can be affected by the decision-making process.

The choice of how a decision will be arrived at should take into account the issue and the people involved in an effort to minimize the cost and maximize the quality of the decision. But many businesspeople automatically make decisions in whatever way they feel most comfortable, or simply perpetuate the ways in which decisions have been made before, without looking at the fit between the decision and the decision-making style.

Consensus is frequently discussed but often misunderstood as a decision-making style. For example, some leaders will assume that team members’ silence after hearing a proposal shows their consensus, where the truth may be they are simply reluctant to express their doubts.

Strictly speaking, a consensus requires the unanimous consent, or approval, of everyone participating in the decision. Partly because each participant has veto power over the decision, participation in a consensus decision-making process gives each participant a strong sense of joint responsibility for the process and the decision. Every participant receives both motive and opportunity to give their blood for the cause.

While the word “consensus” has a touchy-feely sound to some people, in practice it is no more and no less than a specialized wrench for the well-equipped business toolbox. To clarify the value of consensus decision making it helps to compare consensus to command, delegation, and democratic decision-making styles in terms of advantages, disadvantages, and how responsibility for a decision is distributed.

Centralized decision making (“command”). Probably the most familiar and, in recent years, most criticized decision-making style is centralized or “command” decision making, where a leader is directly responsible for every decision within a certain sphere of control. This style can have the advantage of enabling quick, coordinated action, particularly when a deadline is imminent. Its disadvantages can include depriving subordinates of the responsibility, learning, innovation, and personal rewards of making decisions themselves. It can also result in inefficiency or even bottlenecks at times if review and reconsideration are needed before subordinates will take action.

Distributed decision making (“delegation”). For decades now mainstream business thinking has emphasized letting go of the simplicity and familiarity of the command style in order to obtain the benefits of distributed decision making. In contrast to command, a challenging and critically important function of “high-delegation” leaders is to serve as facilitators of decisions made by their team members while resisting the temptation to reconsider and re-issue decisions themselves.

Delegation offers efficiency by reducing the number of people required for each decision, while maximizing ownership of consequences by the individuals who receive decision-making responsibility, boosting their motivation, focus, production quality, and follow-through. However, while delegation serves to distribute decisions across a number of people or groups, the act of delegation does not by itself offer an effective process for allowing a group of people to collaborate in making a single decision.

Majority vote decision making (“democratic”). Consensus is frequently confused with “democratic” or “majority vote” decision making, which it resembles to a certain extent. A majority vote is useful for bringing large numbers of people in on a single decision with minimal cost. It can also set the stage for debate between people who have strong views about a decision, particularly for people with comparable power in a group. Finally, a democratic process results in a decision every time a vote is taken (assuming a tie-breaker process is in place).

Democratic decision making has important strengths in a business setting–for example, when involving large numbers of people such as shareholder groups in a decision. It also has weaknesses. For starters, up to 49% of participants can still wind up being “losers” even though they were included in the decision-making process. This outcome is less than ideal when an organization is counting on everyone to implement a decision enthusiastically. In addition, a vote may be slanted by apathy, inadequate information, or the influence of authority figures who express compelling opinions. Even when discussions do take place before voting, many members of a group may choose to keep important questions, concerns, or alternatives to themselves.

Consensus decision making. Because a consensus decision is preconditioned on participation by everyone in a group, it maximizes “buy-in” and effort from group members during decision making and execution. By the same token, when things don’t go exactly according to plan consensus fosters a sense of goodwill that increases patience, adaptability, and willingness to participate in damage control. The consensus process also encourages discussion of potential obstacles already known to participants, allowing work-arounds to be built into a decision in advance.

Consensus can be very efficient from a cost per decision standpoint. When everyone in a group already has compatible views concerning a proposal, consensus can produce a rapid decision with little or no time spent on a wind up and pitch beforehand. As a project moves forward, leaders can ask for consensus input from teams to discover quickly what kind of support they have and make adjustments if necessary before things go very far off course. In addition, if participants represent groups, consensus can be scaled to larger numbers of people without equivalent costs.

Compared to delegation or command, consensus could take longer or dilute responsibility for follow-through. Other disadvantages of consensus might include taking the time to listen to those whose views don’t conform to mainstream expectations. In addition, it’s possible that a consensus process won’t result in consensus support for any specific course of action, and thus no action will be chosen, which could frustrate someone who wants immediate action.

The following examples demonstrate when consensus might or might not be appropriate. For a mid-sized company, firm-wide consensus would be a poor choice of decision-making style for redesigning the company logo if that project could be better and more cheaply decided by delegating it to one person or a small group of people with appropriate backgrounds. But to redesign an office floor plan for more effective and collaborative use of group space, consensus would be an excellent decision-making style because it solicits the best ideas and the most enthusiastic long-term involvement of everyone who will be using the space.

For any group where harmonious cooperation on many levels and unity on major decisions is essential, consensus decision making can be invaluable. For example, in small business partnerships partners can ill afford to harbor serious reservations or discord over important decisions. Thus, where one partner is leaning towards letting an employee go while another partner could go either way, using a consensus process can help both partners quickly lay out and review options, arrive at a joint decision, and feel supported, respected, and trusted by one another moving forward.


Tool summary: When to use consensus for decision making.

Use the command style for decision making when decisions are needed very quickly, as in a crisis, and one person will be able to make decisions effectively.

Use delegation to increase efficiency and maximize the contribution of every team member.

Use a majority vote to include a large number of people at relatively low cost.

Use consensus when you want high quality input and commitment, with follow-through, from a group.


Recipe for motivating and bonding: ask for a story


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (it’s a 3.2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


One of the joys of my consulting practice is getting to know people in many different lines of work and positions within their organizations, who face a wide array of issues involving decision-making, leadership, customer relationships, communication, motivation, and conflicts.

An epiphany I have had from this vantage point is that most people’s interpersonal challenges, limitations and strengths are startlingly similar. Several powerful and encouraging thoughts flow from this realization, among them the following.

1) Although we habitually point out and emphasize differences in culture, education, income, employment, and experience, in the ways we are “wired” beneath the surface to organize information and make decisions, we’re much more alike than we are different.

2) Our similarities give us extraordinary abilities to understand and be understood by one another.

3) We can accomplish a tremendous amount in combination with people who appear to have little in common with us using uncomplicated, more-or-less intuitive communication approaches and tools.

Here is a communication tool I call “ask for a story.” It’s based on the observation that just about everybody makes an effort to feel successful and effective when they are responsible for accomplishing something. A near universal way to tap into someone’s motivation is to simply ask them for stories about themselves, which helps increase their interest, focus, and commitment while building bonds between them and their listeners.

When to ask for a story. This tool can be used by a supervisor, by a subordinate, by a peer, with a customer, by a customer, and in any situation where one has the desire to change someone else’s perspective, and the ability to focus exclusively on someone else for a few minutes.

How to ask for a story. Simply ask someone to tell you what she especially liked doing recently. For example, you could say something like “Terry, what did you like about work this week?”

When she answers, listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her. Then, to help you understand these things, and to clearly demonstrate to her that you understood her, make your best effort to put into words what she said to you, paraphrasing what you heard in similar words, including how it seems to you that she feels about what she described.

Don’t add new ideas or information to what she said. It’s “about” her, not about you. Limit your response to showing her that you heard, and understood, what she said.

Continuing the previous example, if Terry were to answer you by saying “I really enjoyed completing the Coolidge project, I pushed myself hard and got a lot of compliments for what I got done,” you might respond: “So you really enjoyed finishing the project, and your hard work was recognized – you sound pretty proud of yourself!”

It can require a great deal of patience and self-control to listen without offering opinions, without getting defensive and disagreeing when you don’t agree, and without jumping in with your own story if you do agree. But everyone can listen like this if they choose to, and its effects are powerful.

What’s good about asking for a story? For people who work together the impact can be very beneficial. It can help the person telling a story trust and respect the listener, it can help the listener understand what motivates the story teller besides simply getting paid, and it will sometimes give people the insight they need to learn to improve their leadership, communication, and decision-making.

For sellers and those involved in customer relationships, the very same benefits arise: trust and respect are exchanged, motivations other than the purchase price and the thing being purchased are revealed, and feedback may be given which can help strengthen the relationship.

For anyone who has business relationships, and especially for those who supervise or delegate to someone else, I recommend asking for a story at periodic “check-in” intervals: daily, weekly, monthly, or whatever otherwise makes sense given the nature of your relationship. It triggers an internal sync-up which renews motivation, reinforces an important bond, and refreshes a shared sense of purpose.


Tool summary: Ask for a story.

Ask something like “What did you like about work this week?”

Listen for three things: what she says happened; how she felt about it; and what was important about it to her.

Paraphrase what she says, and how you think she feels about what happened, without adding anything about yourself.

Use in any business relationship as a periodic check-in, depending upon the quantity and quality of contact you have with someone.


Formalized story telling has been used for some time as a change tool by organizational development professionals. One notable format is “Appreciative Inquiry,” which tends to generate great results but can wind up becoming a somewhat involved process. Inspired by a cut-to-the-chase version of appreciative inquiry called “appreciative process,” I’ve used the even simpler, universally applicable “ask for a story” tool I describe here with excellent results in many different situations with virtually no time or budget overhead.

Conflict avoidance: presenting options and leveraging intuition

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 2

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decision making, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


Predicting Confrontations By The Presence Or Absence of Options

Gavin De Becker has noticed that a person arrives at a tipping point and decides to act violently when four conditions are met: they feel justified; they perceive few or no alternatives; they believe the consequences will be favorable; and they believe they have the ability to succeed.

De Becker uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an illustration of this tipping point for violent action, pointing out that those who commit acts of violence in the conflict believe they are justified, perceive no alternatives, perceive the consequences on the whole as favorable, and believe they have the ability to deliver violence.

But what if these perception can be changed, such that violent action doesn’t seem justified, alternatives could be shown to exist, favorable consequences are debunked or unfavorable ones given credit, or the ability to act is shown to be missing?

Similarly, to defuse workplace conflict and convert the energies involved into more productive collaborative action, we can question the basis for conflict by asking ourselves and others involved questions like these (in highly emotional conflicts a neutral third party might be helpful here):

On what principles do each of us justify what we propose to do in this conflict? How well can each of us poke holes in our own justifications?

What alternatives do we perceive to our own positions? If no alternatives are perceived to be available, can we brainstorm, do research, or consult a knowledgeable outsider to look for alternatives?

What consequences do we perceive to be likely to result, on the whole, from what we are doing or propose to do? What information, if it were available, would change our perceptions about what we expect?

Do we have the ability to succeed in what we want to accomplish? Do we have the resources we need to do what we want to do? Where do these resources come from, and who else needs to be involved?

The Role of Intuition In Decision Making

De Becker believes we must listen to our intuition to identify impending threats and find ways to avoid them. He lists several “messengers of intuition,” internal signs and symptoms which he believes are our intuition telling us something that we should pay attention to. These are:

  • nagging feelings
  • persistent thoughts
  • black humor
  • wonder
  • anxiety
  • curiosity
  • hunches
  • gut feelings
  • doubt
  • hesitation
  • suspicion
  • apprehension
  • fear.

Interestingly, De Becker believes our intuitions of danger happen in a flash, the result of a sort of early warning radar built into our brain specially developed to allow us to predict and avoid the violent behavior of other people. He carefully distinguishes such in-an-instant intuition of an immediate threat from states of general worry, dread, or anxiety that some people experience for days, weeks, or years at a time. He believes such ongoing distress results from unhappiness or discomfort with one’s surroundings or circumstances rather than an immediate threat from another person.

De Becker provided a couple of particularly good quotes to illustrate his views about intuition versus anxiety.

Concerning the topic of trusting intuition he quotes Albert Einstein as saying: “The solutions come to you, and you don’t know how or why.”

Concerning the problem that people may have with continually worrying about fears that never materialize, he quotes Mark Twain as saying: “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Pros and cons about De Becker’s book

Pros: if you or someone you know works with or is somehow concerned with any of the following types of people, you should consider reading or recommending this book:

  • someone regularly responsible for disciplining or firing employees, or just one potentially violent employee
  • a law enforcement professional
  • a mental health professional
  • a celebrity or high-profile public figure
  • someone dealing with a stalker
  • someone dealing with a mentally or physically abusive caregiver or spouse
  • someone trying to overcome their fear of violence

Cons: there are many frighteningly detailed examples of violent human behavior in this book, so much so that it could induce anxiety and possibly even a bit of mild paranoia in some readers. In addition, if you strongly support the ability of U.S. citizens to possess personal firearms, you may find De Becker’s numerous examples of gun-related violence off-putting to the extent that he appears to have concluded that guns are part of a problem of violence in the U.S.

Recognizing the needs that lead to confrontations

Insight Into Violence Helps Us Redirect Workplace Conflicts: Part 1

Business decisions are influenced by more than money and expertise. One such influence is the passion that people have for their work, their organizations, their workforce, and their customers. Unfortunately, the same passions that lead to outstanding results can also lead to devastating conflicts. As a result I am always on the lookout for techniques that help channel or convert business passions from destructive to constructive ends.

I recently read a book called The Gift of Fear, Survival Signs that Protect Us, by Gavin De Becker (Little, Brown and Company, 1997). De Becker is a consultant who provides threat assessment and security services for celebrities, public officials, and business people who are at risk of violent attacks from stalkers, disgruntled former employees, and common criminals. I found a number of ideas he presented particularly interesting from a workplace conflict standpoint.

In Part 1 of this “Notebook” entry I examine De Becker’s realization that threats to basic needs lead to confrontations. In Part 2 I examine his “tipping point” analysis for predicting confrontations and his observations about the role that intuition plays in decisionmaking, then I close with pros and cons about the book from a business reader’s perspective.


Listen to the PODCAST: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (a 3.4 MB file, which takes a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


While Gavin De Becker’s work is focused primarily on avoiding violence, the principles he relies on to identify, deter, and defeat potential attackers are based on his broader observations about human motivation in conflict scenarios. De Becker’s observations about motivation are hardly unique — Maslow and Meyers-Briggs come to mind immediately as more widely recognized sources for such lists. But because De Becker’s observations are based on his career experience with thousands of violent and potentially violent individuals, I think his take on this may be uniquely practical for understanding and redirecting conflict.

De Becker finds that all of us, even stalkers and serial killers, tend to be motivated by the following simple needs:

  • establishing connections with other people
  • avoiding sadness from loss
  • avoiding rejection
  • obtaining recognition and attention
  • avoiding pain (even more than we are motivated to increase pleasure)
  • avoiding ridicule and embarrassment
  • obtaining the respect of other people, and
  • having control over our lives.

It’s easy to see how the same list of needs applies to non-violent people in the workplace when they are caught up in conflict with one another: even in the course of a purely business function, when our basic needs are threatened by something someone is doing or proposes to do, we naturally tend to push back to protect what we feel we need. Conflict is a likely byproduct when one or more people feels threatened, even when “it’s just business.” Consider the personal threats involved when issues arise like pay, budget, or being recognized for accomplishments or failures.

How does this help us convert workplace conflicts into more productive styles of communication? It suggests two steps we can take immediately after a conflict arises. First, we can work to identify the needs being put into play by the issue in conflict. Second, we can look for what can be added or subtracted from the issue in conflict which might reduce the impact on the needs of the people in conflict while still satisfying relevant business requirements. It’s like modifying a recipe for a pasta dish: There are many ways of maintaining the good taste of a dish while simultaneously reducing the sodium content by either substituting or changing the proportions of various salt-containing ingredients that were called for by the original recipe.

Having an open and honest discussion about the needs involved is not a trivial task. From personal experience I can assure you that people engaged in a conflict frequently fail to perceive (or admit to) the basic needs that have been challenged by “business” decisions or practices, or they identify such needs but underestimate intensity and influence. Even when a conflict is on its surface about dollars or hours or pencils or whatever, once emotions heat up you can bet that inside people’s heads and hearts there is much more going on. But when people are aware enough and feel safe enough to discuss personal needs, the payoff is that this can lead to approaches that reassure them or protect their interests so that they no longer take conflicting positions, while still satisfying business objectives.

One way to discover these needs is by asking questions like the following:

  • What are you afraid will be lost given the direction things are headed now?
  • What else do you expect to happen if the loss you want to avoid takes place?
  • How would you change what is happening–or what you expect to happen–if you could?
  • What else could be changed to achieve the same goals?
  • What about yourself would you change, if you could, to help?
  • Who do you feel connected to in this situation?
  • Who would you like to feel more connected to if you could?