Effective Decision-Making: Why are Some Leaders Better at it than Others?

Topic(s): decision making, job performance, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2013)
Article: The psychological and neurological bases of leader self-complexity and effects on adaptive decision-making
Authors: Sean T. Hannah, Pierre A. Balthazard, David A. Waldman, Peter L. Jennings, and Robert W. Thatcher
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

This study examined the effective decision-making of 103 military leaders. The authors hoped to discover what mental techniques made some leaders more successful decision makers than others.

In the military, soldiers are exposed to unpredictable and ever-changing situations. One day, they may be meeting with the village elders in Afghanistan to discuss ways in which the US and NATO can help the village. The next day, these same soldiers could be in combat and have to shoot people who look and act in ways very similar to the village elders they met the day before. Given the constantly changing demands of war, soldiers must have the capacity to accurately assess the demands of each situation and act accordingly.

A soldier in negotiations need to be compromising and thoughtful. When in battle, they must aggressively attack the enemy before being injured or killed themselves. If a soldier does not assess each situation anew, but instead acts the same way every time, the consequences could be disastrous. When in negotiations, a soldier who just verbally attacks their negotiating partner is unlikely to get the desired outcome. Similarly, the soldier who acts in a compromising manner on the battlefield and considers the needs of the enemy is unlikely to fare well.

Given the importance of this topic, the authors looked at leader self-complexity – which refers to the ability to act in a manner that is appropriate for the situation – and decision-making. Results indicated that soldiers who who were able to assess the demands of a situation on a case-by-case basis ultimately made better decisions. In complex circumstances and environments, the ability to see the uniqueness of each situation leads to the best decisions.