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9 Habits That Lead to Terrible

by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman
SEPTEMBER 01, 2014

Several years ago we came up with a great idea for a new leadership-development oering we
thought would be valuable to everyone. We had research demonstrating that when people
embarked on a self-development program, their success increased dramatically when they received
follow-up encouragement. We developed a software application to oer that sort of
encouragement. People could enter their development goals, and the software would send them
reminders every week or month asking how they were doing, to motivate them to keep on going. We
invested a lot of time and money in this product.

But it turned out that people did not like receiving thee-mails and found them more annoying than
motivating. Some of our users came up with a name for this type of software. They called it
nagware. Needless to say, this product never reached the potential we had envisioned. Thinking
about the decisions we had made to create this disappointing result led us to ask the question,
What causes well-meaning people to make poor decisions?

Some possibilities came immediately to mind people make poor decisions when under severe time
pressure or when they dont have access to all the important information (unless they are explaining
the decision to their boss, and then it is often someone elses fault).

But we wanted a more objective answer. In an eort to understand the root cause of poor decision
making, we looked at 360-feedback data from more than 50,000 leaders and compared the
behavior of those who were perceived to be making poor decisions with that of the people perceived
to be making very good decisions. We did a factor analysis of the behaviors that made the most
statistical dierence between the best and worst decision makers. Nine factors emerged as the most
common paths to poor decision making. Here they are in order from most to least signicant.

1. Laziness. This showed up as a failure to check facts, to take the initiative, to conrm
assumptions, or to gather additional input. Basically, such people were perceived to be sloppy in
their work and unwilling to put themselves out. They relied on past experience and expected
results simply to be an extrapolation of the past.
2. Not anticipating unexpected events. It is discouraging to consistently consider the possibility of
negative events in our lives, and so most people assume the worst will not happen.
Unfortunately, bad things happen fairly often. People die, get divorced, and have accidents.
Markets crash, house prices go down, and friends are unreliable. There is excellent research
demonstrating that if people just take the time to consider what might go wrong, they are
actually very good at anticipating problems. But many people just get so excited about adecision
they are making that they never take the time to do that simple due-diligence.
3. Indecisiveness. At the other end of the scale, when faced with a complex decision that will be
based on constantly changing data, its easy to continue to study the data, ask for one more
report, or perform yet one more analysis before a decision gets made. When the reports and the
analysis take much longer than expected, poor decision makers delay, and the opportunity is
missed. It takes courage to look at the data, consider the consequences responsibly, and then
move forward. Oftentimes indecision is worse than making the wrong decision. Those most
paralyzed by fear are the ones who believe that one mistake will ruin their careers and so avoid
any risk at all.
4. Remaining locked in the past. Some people make poor decisions because theyre using the same
old data or processes they always have. Such people get used to approaches that worked in the
past and tend not to look for approaches that will work better. Better the devil they know. But,
too often, when a decision is destined to go wrong, its because the old process is based on
assumptions that are no longer true. Poor decision makers fail to keep those base assumptions in
mind when applying the tried and true.
5. Having no strategic alignment. Bad decisions sometimes stem from a failure to connect the
problem to the overall strategy. In the absence of a clear strategy that provides context, many
solutions appear to make sense. When tightly linked to a clear strategy, the better solutions
quickly begin to rise to the top.
6. Over-dependence. Some decisions are never made because one person is waiting for another,
who in turn is waiting for someone elses decision or input. Eective decision makers nd a way
to act independently when necessary.
7. Isolation. Some of those leaders are waiting for input because theyve not taken steps to get it in
a timely manner or have not established the relationships that would enable them to draw on
other peoples expertise when they need to. All our research (and many others) on eective
decision making recognizes that involving others with the relevant knowledge, experience, and
expertise improves the quality of the decision. This is not news. So the question is why.
Sometimes people lack the necessary networking skills to access the right information. Other
times, weve found, people do not involve others because they want the credit for a decision.
Unfortunately they get to take the blame for the bad decisions, as well.
8. Lack of technical depth. Organizations today are very complex, and even the best leaders do not
have enough technical depth to fully understand multifaceted issues. But when decision makers
rely on others knowledge and expertise without any perspective of their own, they have a
dicult time integrating that information to make eective decisions. And when they lack even
basic knowledge and expertise, they have no way to tell if a decision is brilliant or terrible. We
continue to nd that the best executives have deep expertise. And when they still dont have the
technical depth to understand the implications of the decisions they face, they make it their
business to nd the talent they need to help them.
9. Failure to communicate the what, where, when, and how associated with their decisions. Some
good decisions become bad decisions because people dont understand or even know about
them. Communicating a decision, its rational and implications, is critical to the successful
implementation of a decision.

Waiting too long for others input. Failing to get the right input at the right time. Failing to
understand that input through insucient skills. Failing to understand when something that
worked in the past will not work now. Failing to know when to make a decision without all the right
information and when to wait for more advice. Its no wonder good people make bad decisions. The
path to good decision making isnarrow,and its far from straight. But keeping in mind the pitfalls
can make any leader a more eectivedecision maker.

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October
2011 HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable and the book How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by
Magnifying Your Strengths (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Connect with Jack at

Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of

the October 2011 HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable and the book How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership
Success by Magnifying Your Strengths (McGraw-Hill, 2012). Connect with Joe at

This article is about DECISION MAKING



Leave a Comment


Stacy McDonald 22 days ago

What seemed like a contradiction actually makes sense. Leaders usually have foresight and intuition. They look at all
options, not just all or nothing thinking. They have brains that think with elasticity. Menkes (2011) states, Elasticity is
a critical benet of acute awareness of actual circumstances (Leaders) insisting on and modeling it for otherspass
on this trait to their organization (p.62). Three characteristics leaders have with their practiced decision-making skills
are commitment, control, and challenge (Thompson, 2011, p.198). Oscar and Poppel (2007) researched DA and found,
The effects of DA binding to its metabotropic receptors include modications of synaptic plasticity believed form
substrate of learning and memory (Kandel, 2001). Leaders become resilient because of their attitude, the coagulation
of their past, present, and integrative future thinking at once, and their positive processing to meet the challenge.
Leaders grow aware that their work takes a tremendous amount of their time. At some point leaders must prioritize
themselves, in order to be efcient in their position and leading others. Priorities such as sleep, awareness, knowing
how to learn, keeping it simple and clear, use advanced planning, and are exible, these habits build a resilient leader.
Stress can only burden a leader if they allow it to. The mind is a powerful tool. With practice a leader separates
themselves from others and the way they handle stress appears easy, but really they have learned techniques and
strategies that work them through the stress at minimal cost of body emotion and ill effects. The amygdala alerts the
hypothalamus, which connects the message to the pituitary gland, that alerts the adrenal gland who lets out
cortisol/hormones which cause a persons ght or ight response.
Stress reduction strategies make a huge difference in how this mechanism reacts in our body. Stress reduction
strategies include beliefs and skills (Sylwester, 2004, p.153). A critical factor needed to be a quality leader is the use of
theory of mind (Goldberg, 141-147) where a person is able to have insight into another persons way of thinking and
planning in order to lead the team. A leader is a responder. Responders can readily predict the problems that will arise
in a major incident and too often their predictions are borne out in practice. Responders may be better attuned to these
challenges and more able to address them in their planning and training processes (Donahue, et al, 2006). Thompson
(2010) states, Behavioral contagion is a powerful effect. The brain contains mirror neurons that enable us to imitate
behaviors we see (p.227). Leaders transfer the stress into another area simply by mapping an idea out. They distract
themselves into other ideas about the issue and wind up resolving it through less stress.


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