I loved Elizabeth Bernstein’s interesting column on the psychological research around how people make decisions. In summarizing work by psychology professor Barry Schwartz, Bernstein boils it down like this:
Psychology researchers have studied how people make decisions and concluded there are two basic styles. “Maximizers” like to take their time and weigh a wide range of options—sometimes every possible one—before choosing. “Satisficers” would rather be fast than thorough; they prefer to quickly choose the option that fills the minimum criteria (the word “satisfice” blends “satisfy” and “suffice”).
One important aspect of this concept is that people usually land somewhere on a spectrum between ‘Maximizer’ and ‘Satisficer’; using one style for some or most decision making and vice versa. But the real crux of the research is that even though ‘Maximizers’ take much more time for research and deliberation before making their decisions, they are less happy with their decisions overall than the ‘Satisficers’ that make their decisions more quickly.
I see a direct connection between this paradigm of decision-making style and the work I do as an executive coach. So often I run across two types people who probably sit pretty far on the ‘Maximizer’ side of the spectrum and run up against very specific limitations to their leadership ability: 1) The leader who is hyper-capable but unable to delegate and 2) the leader that is completely data-driven and can’t thrive in ambiguity. Both of these types of managers always have a hard time at a certain level as they rise through the ranks of a company. They struggle to get to the point where they can successfully lead very large groups or units because they just cannot operate successfully with limited time or information.
It is fairly difficult to help these kinds of managers understand the limitations created by their inability to run sub-optimally for a period of time while they build out the capacity of others or to make good decisions quickly with only partial information. But I think that if these leaders can see how their desire to be a ‘Maximizer’ could perhaps be tempered or replaced with the very practical ‘Satisficer’ stance, then they may grow as leaders. The first kind of leader will see that by delegating, the not-as-perfect output of subordinates with both become better in time and also free up the leader to embrace their role in a more strategic way. The second kind of leader can learn that trying hard to trust the trends in early data or initial impressions of a situation usually results in nearly the same eventual decision only much more quickly and to better effect.
The truth is that some leaders need to learn that making a good decision quickly usually nets a better outcome than making marginally better decisions more slowly. Perfect is the enemy of good. Moreover these studies might provide a more concrete example for how good decision-making ability is most of what sets the business leader apart from the very good middle manager.