Resource Library Articles

The Three Voices in a Good Decision

Ultimately, your success as a leader depends upon the effectiveness of important decisions. How do you know when you’ve reached a clear decision, one you’re willing to uphold, no matter what?

The three primary voices in a decision-making process are:

The Voice of the Mind: A mental process in which logic rules.
The Voice of the Emotions: A psychological process in which pleasure or pain rules.
The Voice of the Heart: A spiritual process in which values and instinct rule.

Here is a story that illustrates these voices: Jane had started her business with a mission in mind: providing important services in a highly ethical and effective style. She hired a key manager to develop the markets, and this he did well. The business mushroomed, profits soared, and Jane was flush with success. Yet something began to gnaw at her. This key manager’s tactics were suspect. He sweet-talked clients to the point of manipulation. Her overworked, underacknowledged staff felt like slaves to an impossible master. Jane closed her eyes to the cost of success and for a number of years this manager had free rein.

Finally, with help from trusted colleagues outside the organization, Jane awakened to her own dis-ease. Moving beyond the “logic” of the past, she made bold moves, letting the manager go, along with his loyalists, and virtually dismantling her business. Then she slowly and painstakingly began to rebuild the business, in concert with her original vision.

This is a true story. Today this owner’s business is on a gradual growth trend. More important, she is at peace with herself and her work, and has no regrets about the drastic and painful decisions she made to reclaim her business, her values, and, in a sense, her soul.

Is there anything “gnawing” at you now? In what areas of your work or leadership are you ill at ease? Not at peace? Disturbed at some fundamental level? These are heart signs. To ignore them invites disaster, not only in personal terms (heartache), but also in a long-term business sense. For too long, Jane ignored her internal processes. As a result, Jane’s company, profitable as it was for a time, began to fall apart at its core. Good people were fired or left; dysfunctional, driven people were staying. The company was losing sight of its values-driven mission.

We’ve observed these dynamics in our own lives and the lives of our clients. We would like to claim authorship of brilliant and novel insights into the human psyche, but Plato beat us to it by almost 3,000 years! Plato’s image was of the mind and emotions as two horses, the heart as charioteer. In other words, the first two are highly useful as long as they are at the service and direction of the master (heart).

I can defy logic (mind) and still be at peace.

I can operate with pain (emotions) and still be at peace.

I cannot defy my own gut (heart) and be at peace.

Test this truth by reflecting on your own experiences. Take a look at decisions you regret. Look at decisions you’d stand by again today, even though they might have led to some pain. Which of the three voices – mind, emotions, or heart – drove your decisions? Can you identify times when you’ve consciously or unconsciously ignored your heart in a decision, and what were the results?

An excellent leader is aware of and speaks from all three voices. As a leader, your challenge is to work rationally and logically, aware of your feelings and the feelings of others, and in touch with your heart (gut, instinct, deepest values). That requires a keenly developed consciousness of your potential deafness to each voice. Most of all, to live at peace with yourself and your decisions, you need a radical commitment to follow your heart.

As a leader, you strive to become masterful at coaching your people. The essence of coaching is to assist others in developing awareness of how they make decisions, how to access all three voices, and ultimately how to trust their own guts. That also will enable you to trust their decisions.

As with any area of leadership, the key to coaching others is your own modeling. A noble goal for you as a leader is to become more aware of these three voices, and test your decision-making in light of each voice. When fully employing your mind, your emotions, and your heart in your own leadership, both you and your employees will end up with better decisions.

Respectful Probing: A Strategy to Help Your People Make Better Decisions
One of the great temptations of management is to make decisions for people instead of helping them make their own decisions. We want our direct reports to think for themselves, but we don’t want them to fail. So, too often, we give them the answers.

The results? The immediate decision does get made, but our people learn nothing about decision-making. Their dependence on us is reinforced.

One alternative to this “doctor-patient” relationship is the use of respectful probing as a decision-making aid. Three keys to respectful probing are your (1) motives, (2) disposition, and (3) timing.

1. For probing to be helpful, your motives as a manager must be trusted by your people. A history of mistrust in the relationship all but guarantees that your “help” will be perceived suspiciously.

The hope is that such mistrust can be melted away over time by a genuine desire to help the employee grow and learn. This desire to help is the essential bottom-line motive for all respectful probing.

Check your motives by considering the following questions:

• Is your basic motive to help this person learn better decision-making skills?
• Are you trying to look superior or prove yourself?
• Will your questions likely result in a better decision?
• Does this person seem to want or appreciate your questions?
• Have you asked?

2. A second key to respectful probing is your disposition or attitude as a leader. The simple (but not always easy) attitude of curiosity is the optimum posture for coaching direct reports or colleagues. Curiosity might be defined as an explorational, invitational, and nonjudgmental style of coaching.

Curiosity, or lack of it, tends to show up visually. Your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression are highly influential in any conversation with employees. There is nothing more disarming and inviting as visual communication that says, “I really want to know.” Conversely, no message seems quite so off-putting as “I really don’t care.”

For example, the question, “Why was that an important consideration in your decision?” when asked out of genuine curiosity, may invite an employee to explore and discover underlying factors influencing decision-making. That same question, posed with intimidation or condescension, might well be a “trust stopper.”

Even a difficult question, such as, “Have you considered the effects of your prejudices on your decision-making?” may be posed sensitively, and may serve as a powerful intervention in a dialogue. It’s all in how the question is asked.

3. A final key to respectful probing is timing. In a highly functioning relationship, both manager and direct report will welcome, solicit, and consider each other’s questions at almost any time.

Since most leader-follower relationships are not ideal, discretion about when to probe, what words to use, and how far to push become important. Two particularly obvious, yet often overlooked aspects of discretionary probing are the internal readiness of the person being questioned and the external environment within which the probing takes place.

If the person you intend to help is not ready for that help, two-way frustration is the most likely outcome. Before probing, check out the internal state of your co-worker. “Is this a good time for us to discuss the XYZ decision?” “I’m confused about where we are on the Smith report. Are you open to some questions about it?” Your people will appreciate your sensitivity.

In a similar way, the external environment – ringing telephones, machine noise, bustling hallways, and constant interruptions – may pose a timing challenge. As one president recently said, “If the conversation is important, I make a real effort to conduct it in a private place.”

The best leaders know instinctively that asking beats telling in the decision-making process. Checking your motives, attitudes, and timing will increase the likelihood that your probing will enable better decisions by your people.


This article originally appeared in Great Lakes Leadership Group’s “Leader’s Edge”. Reprinted with permission.

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