Change and Decision Fatigue

By Keeley Hammond written about 11 months ago

We live in a fast-paced, rapidly changing world. Change has become the credo for most successful organizations, and that requirement is trickling down to small businesses everywhere. You’ll hear it constantly: 

  • We’ll change the rules of the game!
  • Let’s sprint for two weeks and then pivot!
  • Competitor X changed – time for us to innovate so we don’t get left behind!

Change is exciting. Change can galvanize people, keep industries fresh, and it’s good for economies and individuals alike. But, what we sometimes forget is the effect that constant change can have on both our people and ourselves as leaders.

Constant Decisions and Strenuous Thinking Leads to Poor Decision-Making

In a study by Ben-Gurion University that followed 1,100 court decisions, Jonathan Levav and Shai Danziger found that prisoners who were arraigned early in the day received parole about 70% of the time. Prisoners who came late in the evening, however, had less than 10% chance at landing parole. This was across the board, regardless of race, gender or severity of crime. 

Why? Judges, being only human, were mentally exhausted. The cognitive load of ruling on case after case wore them down. They had, as the New York Times reports, fallen victim to decision fatigue. 

It doesn’t only affect judges. CFOs, graphic designers, construction workers – all can fall victim to the stress of repeated, difficult decisions. And, it’s hardly a new phenomenon — the aforementioned New York Times article was written in 2011, the fabulous Kathy Sierra discussed the problem in her talk, “Building the Minimum Badass User,” and economists Kahneman and Tversky spoke about “cognitive load” and the knowledge worker in the 1990’s.

But what is new is the rate of change in modern companies — how often employees, leaders and marketers have to completely change what they’re doing and how quickly they have to learn to become comfortable with that change. 

What To Do About It

Your company is likely to face change in the near future. More likely, your company is currently in a state of change, and the dust will barely settle on the ground before you look up to see the next change coming just over the horizon.

Change is inevitable. You can no more refuse to change than you can decide that breathing air is a fad. 

So what can you as a leader do it about? How can you constantly meet these new changes without burning yourself or your people out?

There is a plethora of ways to combat decision fatigue, but we’re all about simplicity here, so let’s focus on these three simple techniques:

1.   Ask for Help

A curious thing happens within our brains when we’re asked for help. While we may perceive asking for help as weakness, or a hit to the ego, those we ask tend to respond well. This phenomenon is dubbed the Ben Franklin effect, who quipped: 

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.

Helping others makes us feel good — it reduces stress and cognitive load when we feel we are contributing to something bigger than ourselves. As a company leader, what can asking for help look like?

  • Empowering those lower in the organization to make decisions in order to reduce your own fatigue
  • Asking a colleague for input on a decision, so you aren’t researching alone
  • Asking for buy-in and support in executing a decision in order to create a collective enthusiasm
2.   Simplify When Possible

From a branding perspective, turning complexity into simplicity can pay off in large dividends for companies. Brian Bailey at Buffer captured this with an example from Trader Joe’s:

Some smart companies have come to the conclusion that reducing mental drain is good business. Trader Joe’s, a thriving grocery store chain, has a unique approach. The average grocery store carries around 50,000 different products. Trader Joe’s features about 4,000. Whereas most chains compete on offering the widest selection, Trader Joe’s has cultivated a large, passionate customer base by focusing on the quality of the products and the experienceInside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s is an excellent look at the company.

Swapping selection for value turns out not to be much of a tradeoff. Customers may think they want variety, but in reality too many options can lead to shopping paralysis. Not only do fewer choices make purchases easier and less taxing, they make customers happier.

Brand and culture are two sides of the same coin – by simplifying messages, offerings and initiatives to employees, leaders can actually create a larger sense of freedom in their employees. 

This is why we preach the value of a vision, “a simple, vivid picture of the future.” It’s why our CEO, David Baker, talks about the power of catching just one orange.

Simple messages carry great power, and they inspire brand loyalty in both customers and employees. They also reduce the cognitive load that we ask our customers and employees to carry.

3.   Cross One River at a Time

The two phases of decision-making are what psychologists call the “Rubicon model of action,” named from the tale of Caesar crossing the Rubicon River. 

The “predecisional phase” occurred on the far side of the river when Caesar considered the risks of starting a civil war. When he stopped calculating and crossed the Rubicon, he reached the “postdecisional phase,” saying, “The die is cast.”

Many people would think that this phase carries the least decisional fatigue. After all, the deliberation is over. The die is cast. Rather, researchers have found that the act of deciding — the actual casting of the die — is the most cognitively depleting by far.

At Think Shift, we emphasize rallying around a decision once it’s been made by:

  1. Clearly communicating the decision to all parties involved, and
  2. Supporting the decision that’s been made, even if we don’t agree with it.

It’s part of our formal decision-making process. Give yourself some time to reflect on the decision in a supportive environment before crossing another river. It will allow for some cognitive resources to be rebuilt and will better prepare you for that next decision. 

Change is coming. Be excited by it! But, also be prepared for the decisions that come with it. By being intentional about how you make decisions, you can reduce the effect of decision fatigue on your people.

Want to know more about our Decision-Making process? Click Here!

At Think Shift, we help organizations and brands lean into a world that’s constantly changing. Want to work with us? Give us a call at 503-789-1338.