Why good leaders make bad decisions

Harv Bus Rev. 2009 Feb;87(2):60-6, 109.


Decision making lies at the heart of our personal and professional lives. Yet the daunting reality is that enormously important decisions made by intelligent, responsible people with the best information and intentions are nevertheless hopelessly flawed at times. In part, that's due to the way our brains work. Modern neuroscience teaches us that two hard-wired processes in the brain--pattern recognition and emotional tagging--are critical to decision making. Both are normally reliable; indeed, they provide us with an evolutionary advantage. But in certain circumstances, either one can trip us up and skew our judgment. In this article, Campbell and Whitehead, directors at the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, together with Finkelstein, of Dartmouth's Tuck School, describe the conditions that promote errors of judgment and explore how organizations can build safeguards against them into the decision-making process. In their analysis, the authors delineate three "red-flag conditions" that are responsible either for distorting emotional tagging or for encouraging people to see false patterns: conflicts of interest; attachments to people, places, or things; and the presence of misleading memories, which seem, but really are not, relevant and comparable to the current situation. Using a global chemical company as an example, the authors describe the steps leaders can take to counteract those biases: inject fresh experience or analysis, introduce further debate and more challenges to their thinking, and impose stronger governance. Rather than rely on the wisdom of experienced chairmen, the humility of CEOs, or the standard organizational checks and balances, the authors urge, everyone involved in important decisions should explicitly consider whether red flags exist and, if they do, lobby for appropriate safeguards.

MeSH terms

  • Administrative Personnel / psychology*
  • Chemical Industry / organization & administration
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Decision Making, Organizational*
  • Humans
  • Internationality
  • Judgment*
  • Leadership*
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated
  • Risk-Taking