Influences on Timely Decision Making
By Kimball Johnson
Nov. 8, 2017
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Of the many different traits a leader should possess, perhaps the most important, yet arguably the least understood, is the ability to make the right decisions under pressure. Noncommissioned officers make leadership decisions every day. The need for them to be effectual and wise decision-makers is especially pertinent as they lead Soldiers on the battlefield.
Understanding how and why people make certain decisions will not only help NCOs improve their decision-making skills but will also give them insight into the motivations of their Soldiers. This article discusses the three factors that can influence decision-making skills: fear of loss, commitment, and personal biases.
Fear of Loss
We probably all know someone who carefully maintains their reputation. A person like Royal Dutch Airlines Captain Jacob Van Zaten, so well-known for his attention to detail, safety, and punctuality among his peers that airline management used his image for their advertisements.1 That is, until March 27, 1977, when he lost that reputation and became the pilot responsible for one of the worst airline disasters in aviation history.
Capable as he was, there should have been no problems when he was ordered to divert his aircraft from its planned route to Los Rodeos on Tenerife Island off the coast of Spain because of a terrorist attack.2
After landing, Van Zaten had to deal with flight delay, mandatory crew rest requirements, and logistical problems such as food for the passengers, arranging rooms in overbooked hotels, and the delay’s effect on the airline’s flight schedules; many people were depending on him that day and the potential for failure was high.
In their book Sway, Ori and Rom Brafman bring up another concern Van Zaten must have had because of all this outside pressure: his reputation for organization and punctuality was at risk.3 Although this was an intangible consequence of the delay, it didn’t lessen its importance for Van Zaten.
“Intangible goals play a significant role, especially if you’re thinking from a military standpoint, in terms of respect from your peers,” said Dr. Robert Bischoff, chief of Behavioral Health at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Bischoff says that making decisions is a developmental process. “I think we tend to start out in our training as focusing more on the tangible goals [i.e. rank, pay] and as we rise to different NCO leadership [grades] . . . the intangible goals [i.e. reputation, job satisfaction] become more important over time,” he explained.4
The Brafmans refer to this type of influence on decision-making as risk aversion.5
“The more meaningful a potential loss is, the more loss averse we become,” said Eric Johnson, professor of marketing at Columbia University. “In other words, the more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept into an irrational decision.”6
No one really knows what was going through Van Zaten’s head that day. The accident report states that, “. . . perhaps on account of these worries – he seemed a little absent from all that he heard in the cockpit.”7
Van Zaten’s commitment to get his passengers to their destination was further frustrated by low-lying clouds that began to cover the airport. They limited his visibility so much that, when allowed to taxi out for takeoff, he could not see the end of the runway.
At the same time, he was aware that a Pan Am 747 had permission to taxi behind him until it could turn off the runway and give him clearance for his takeoff. However, as Van Zaten made a 180 degree maneuver that pointed his aircraft back down the runway, he was unable to see far enough to tell whether or not it had turned off. Without contacting the tower or discussing it with his crew, he decided that the runway was clear and began his takeoff roll without clearance.
It wasn’t until he neared takeoff speed that he saw the other aircraft through the fog, just beginning its turn off the runway. Lifting the nose at the last minute, he must have thought he had made it. That is, until the plane’s undercarriage struck the other aircraft, killing 584 people.8
The result of Van Zaten’s final decision that day was tragic; the events that led to it were almost a “perfect storm” scenario. However, it is clear that all of his concerns could have been dealt with successfully if he had not been overly fearful of failing to satisfy other unrealistic expectations.
Max H. Bazerman, a business professor at Harvard Business School, examines another influence that may have affected Van Zaten’s clouded commitment to take off that day. In his book, Judgement in Managerial Decision Making, he explains that “. . . in general, we should be cognizant of the fact that our decisions will tend to be biased by our past actions, and that we have a natural individual tendency to escalate commitment, particularly after receiving negative feedback.”9 (In Van Zaten’s case, it would have been the fear of potential negative feedback that escalated his commitment.)
Each year, Bazerman illustrates what he means by conducting an experiment in his Harvard classes. It consists of auctioning off a $20 bill. Like any auction, the highest bidder wins the $20. However, Bazerman adds an additional caveat to his experiment: the second highest bidder must also pay what they bid and receive nothing for their effort.10
Bazerman says that most people drop out between the $12 to $16 range until it comes down to two individuals whose commitment to winning (i.e. beating the other person and winning the prize) takes over their desire to make a profit, causing them to offer bids that exceed the real value of what they are bidding on. The record bid for the $20 is $204.
The idea that someone would pay more than 10 times what something is worth certainly points to some kind of focused commitment. Some would say “a misdirected focus,” and, judging from Bazerman’s experiment, this type of “enraged” commitment can be self-destructive in the long run. It can also ostracize one from one’s peers, as Van Zaten’s example of not seeking his cockpit crew’s advice before taking off proves.
Bazerman’s auction experiment not only emphasizes how large a part commitment plays in decision-making, it also points out two of the most common biases we have as human beings.
One type, known as perceptual bias, explains why “most” people tend to focus on only positive outcomes for the decisions they make. This shows up in the way that bidders think they can beat the other person and win at an auction that objectively does not make any sense to get involved in.
The second type of bias, known as judgmental bias, explains the way people ignore facts that disagree with what they have already decided to do. This is apparent in the way that bidders will not practice self-control and stop themselves from bidding before their losses are greater than their winnings.11
“There are a number of cognitive biases that are inherent to all of us,” Bischoff explained. “There are biases we have, depending upon how we’re raised, in terms of how you develop this tunnel vision, [how] you develop this comfortable alliance with the facts that you’re comfortable with.
“That’s kind of the long way of saying that we’ve all got these inherent blinders, that we’re not going to see the entire situation,” Bischoff said. “We’re going to see it how we’ve seen other situations. We can’t really step into a new perspective because we’re just not built that way.”12
Generally, biases serve some very important purposes, allowing us to filter quickly through the increasing information and requests on our limited time we encounter every day. However, when our biases blind us to what is important or what is best, they are debilitating and destructive.
“Forewarned is Forearmed”
In hindsight, it is easy to determine some of the influences on Van Zaten’s decision-making before the accident. First, he ignored the facts (judgmental bias) because of his commitment to takeoff. Second, he had a positive feeling that his decision was right (perceptual bias), without feeling any need to consult with the tower. Third, he may have been concerned that his record for punctuality was being threatened (loss aversion) and his reputation damaged.13
By being aware that human beings are risk adverse, and that the threat to intangible values such as reputation, self-identity, or emotions can cause escalation and conflict, it makes sense to consider how your decisions may affect others. It also makes sense that, if we do lose something tangible or intangible, we should take the long view of things, so that immediate losses don’t seem so threatening.15
We can also be wiser when it comes to making commitments by first consulting with people we trust. They can bring an uninvolved perspective, side-stepping our limited biases and helping us to see our choices more clearly.16
By being aware of how persons can be influenced in their decision-making process through fear, misdirected commitment and self-limiting biases, NCOs can evaluate their own decision-making skills as leaders. Then, using trusted advice, self-control, and practice, they can be confident that they will make the best decisions possible for themselves and their Soldiers when circumstances require it.
- See http://www.aviationabove.com/the-5-worst-aviation-accidents/
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), KLM Flight 4805, Boeing 747-206B, PH-BUF, ground collision with Pan American Flight 1736, Boeing 747-121, N735PA, March 27, 1977, http://lessonslearned.faa.gov/ll_main.cfm?TabID=1&LLID=52.
- Brafman, Ori and Rom Brafman, Sway (New York: Crown Publishing, 2008), 11.
- Dr. Robert Bichoff (Chief of Behavioral Health & Installation Director of Psychological Health for Ft. Leavenworth, KS.), in discussion with the author, September 2017.
- Brafman, 21.
- For more on risk aversion in the modern Army, see A.J. Shattuck’s article, “Multi-Domain Battle Will Require a Different Type of Leader,” found at https://mwi.usma.edu/multi-domain-battle-will-require-totally-different-type-leader/
- See http://www.feeds99.com/list/10-worst-airline-disasters-that-scared-every-traveler-in-the-world) & http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/tenerife-airport-disaster-kills-560-1977-article-1.3011487
- Bazerman, Max H., Judgement in Managerial Decision Making (Ney Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006), 84.
- Bazerman, 85.
- Bazerman, 89.
- Brafman, Ori and Rom Brafman, Sway (New York: Crown Publishing, 2008), 11.
- Brafman, 172.
- Brafman, 175, 177-178.