What Makes A Decision Irrational?
After spending 30 years deconstructing the inner processes of how people decide, and training a decision facilitation model used in sales, coaching, and leadership, I’m always amused when I hear anyone deem a decision ‘irrational’.
Only outsiders wishing for a different outcome designate a decision as ‘irrational’. I doubt if the decision maker says to herself, “Gee! I think I’ll make an irrational decision!” I could understand her thinking it irrational after reaping surprising consequences. But not at the moment it’s being made.
We all make the best decisions we can at the moment we make them. It’s only when someone else compares the decision against their own subjective filters and standard, or using some academic/’accepted’ standard as ‘right’, or judging the decision against a conclusion they would have preferred. But outsiders don’t have the same criteria, beliefs, or life experiences the decision maker uses to evaluate.
Indeed, there is no such thing as a decision maker making an irrational decision. The decision maker carefully – partially unconsciously – weighs an unknowable set of highly subjective factors including 1. Personal beliefs, values, historic criteria, experience, future goals; 2. Possible future outcomes in relation to how they experience their current situation. There is no way an outsider can understand what’s going on within the idiosyncratic world of the decision maker, regardless of academic or ‘rational’ standards, the needs of people judging, the outcome as viewed by others.
CASE STUDY OF AN ‘IRRATIONAL DECISION’
I recently made an agreement with a colleague to send me a draft of his article about me before he published it. Next thing I knew, the article was published. How did he decide to go against our agreement? Here was our ensuing dialogue:
BP: I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was only a brief article.
SDM: It was a big enough deal for me to ask to read it first. How did you decide to go against our agreement?
BP: You’re a writer! I didn’t have the time you were going to take to go through your editing process!
SDM: How do you know that’s why I wanted to read it first?
BP: Because you most likely would not like my writing style and want to change it. I just didn’t have time for that.
SDM: So you didn’t know why I wanted to read it and assumed I wanted to edit it?
BP: Oh. Right. So why did you want to read it?
SDM: My material is sometimes difficult to put into words, and it has taken me decades to learn to say it in ways readers will understand. I would have just sent you some new wording choices where I thought clarity was needed, and discussed it with you.
BP: Oh. I could have done that.
While a simple example, it’s the same in any type of personal decision (vs. those decisions that get weighted against specific academic or group criteria – such as coordinates to drill a well): each decision maker uses her own subjective reasoning regardless of baseline, academic, or conventional Truths. In our situation, my partner wove an internal tale of subjective assumptions that led him to a decision that might have jeopardized our relationship. I thought it was irrational, but ‘irrational’ only against my subjective criteria as an outsider with my own specific assumptions and needs.
And, although I’m calling this a personal decision process, anyone involved in group decision making does the same: enter with personal, unique criteria that supersede the available academic or scientific information the group uses. This is why we end up with resistance or sabotage during implementations.
STOP JUDGING DECISIONS BASED ON OUR OWN NEEDS
What if we stopped assuming that our business partners, our spouses, our prospects were acting irrationally. What if we assume each decision is rational, and got curious: what has to be true for that decision to have been made? If we assume that the person was doing the best they could given their subjective criteria and not being irrational, we could:
- ask what criteria the person was using and discuss it against our own;
- communicate in a way that enabled win-win results;
- ensure all collaborators work with the same set of baseline assumptions and remove as much subjectivity as possible before a decision gets made.
Of course, we would have to switch our listening skills for this. We’d need to become aware of an incongruence we notice and be willing to communicate with the ‘irrational’ decision maker. I have written a book called What? (free download www.didihearyou.com) that explains why we hear with biased ears, and how to hear others to understand their intent. Because if we merely judge others according to our unique listening filters, many rational decisions might sound irrational.
Sharon Drew Morgen is the author of 9 books, including one NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and one Amazon #2 bestseller Dirty Little Secrets – why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell. Her latest book What? is about how we can hear each other without bias. She is available for training, speaking, coaching, and consulting on helping buyers buy, Buying Facilitation®, and listening collaboratively. firstname.lastname@example.org