What The Amazing Race Can Teach Us About Decision Making

The inability to make decisions in difficult times is a real thing; here’s how to work through it.

By Carole Mahoney

Decision paralysis is a real challenge for many businesses as we start to come out of the pandemic. There is still much uncertainty and navigating it can be as difficult as tasks for first-time contestants on The Amazing Race.

As business leaders, it may be where, what, and unfortunately, who to cut to conserve operational costs. Or what investments to make, what markets to go after, and how to differentiate from competitors.

Many managers are also struggling to decide how to motivate their teams and get them to focus through their own survivor’s guilt of still being on the job when some of their co-workers are gone. Others are still trying to figure out which techniques and tactics are best, while at the same time trying to efficiently work and manage remotely.

And as sellers or customer-facing service technicians, deciding what to do and say to help customers make a decision that is in their best interest can feel like an hourly struggle when you are being pulled in so many different directions.

Where Does Paralysis Come From?

Why does decision paralysis seem to strike at times when the one thing we need to do is make intelligent and speedy decisions?

One reason is because uncertainty causes fear, irrational thinking, a need for perfection, and therefore lots of anxiety. With too many options and no way to tell which is best, the anxiety of needing to make a choice now without knowing what the future looks like combined with a fear of failure can lead to cognitive overload.

It can make you look like a contestant staring at a clue and having no idea what it means—though it is obvious to all of us watching at home.

And when we feel overwhelmed, we often end up opting to “wait and see what happens” while we binge-watch The Amazing Race or MythBusters on Netflix. (How else do you think I came up with this metaphor?)

If you haven’t been through it before, that lack of exposure or practice to making decisions in uncertainty is even more difficult due to what cognitive research calls “case-based reasoning.” This basically means we solve problems by recalling past experiences or reference points to make what we feel is the right decision.

The “unknown unknowns” of what a good future looks like leaves us like a deer in the headlights in the middle of the road with everyone around us screaming, “Get out of the road!”

Deciding what to do and say to help customers make a decision that is in their best interest can feel like an hourly struggle when you are being pulled in so many different directions.

Pushing Past Paralysis

So how do we push past the paralysis so we can do something? There are three key components to consider helping counter these cognitive biases:

  • Your mindset about what to do
  • Confidence in your abilities to make good decisions
  • Taking action on those decisions.

First is the mindset about what to do. With too many options, we become overwhelmed. To overcome this overwhelmed mindset, we need to structure and limit the options we consider. Structure can be ranking options on a scale like a list of pros and cons.

In addition to limiting and structuring options, we also need to make sure these options resonate with our values and how we identify ourselves. Not only will it make it easier to decide between options, but it will also make it more likely that we will actually do the thing we decide on.

Once you have some idea on what your options are, it’s time to reinforce your perceived ability to select and follow through on a good decision.

How many times have you had an idea on what to do, but your lack of confidence in your ability to make good decisions has stopped you? Maybe you’ve made mistakes before—like the rest of humanity I might add—and that is stopping you from making a decision now.

To help counter this bias, look for social proof of your decision. By looking at examples of what others have done, it can reinforce the idea that you are making the right decision. If no one has done it before, reflect on a time when you have done something you have never done before and still came out just fine.

While making a choice is still difficult, try focusing on the process to decide rather than the decision itself. Study how others made similar decisions. When you observe how others have done it in the past, you will feel more confident in the steps to take to do it for yourself.

But be mindful of following what others do. Just because what they did worked for them doesn’t mean it will work for you. Be willing to test and alter to suit you and your circumstances.

To prevent further decision fatigue, make your important decisions as early in the day as possible. As our day continues, we tire of the decisions we make, and as a result, put things off. Set a deadline for yourself—not just the day, but the time of day.

Now, if you are a leader facing a longer-term decision, the future is especially hard to envision right now. Many of you are struggling right now with the concept of revenue growth when you are faced with operational cuts and challenges due to our current circumstances.

That is why visualizing your future state is so important. It can be as simple as asking the question, “When do we want to see growth again?” or “When do we want to be back on track?”

Finally, taking action is the whole point of the decision-making process. Here are a few cognitive strategies to help you and your teams act.

Tapping into FOMO (fear of missing out) is a way to tap into our emotions to create a sense of urgency in ourselves and others. Our tendency to loss aversion—the fact that most of us hate to lose more than we love to win—feeds our competitive streak.

You only have to look at what your competition is doing to take over market share to get a sense of urgency. If you were them and knew that you could gain market share by acting first, wouldn’t you do it?

If that doesn’t work for you, or if your competition is playing the “wait and see” game as well, then make a promise. Make a promise to your team or to your customers, as doing so will create a sense of social obligation. Like the person who has a gym buddy is more likely to go to their planned workout, when you make a promise you are more likely to keep it.

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Using these tips, and maybe a few more you pick up when binge-watching The Amazing Race this winter too, will have you soon leading your business and customers to the finish line.

Learn Sales Skills Online
Unbound Sales Growth columnist Carole Mahoney has recorded three NGWA: Industry Connected videos, all of which provide great tips on how to improve your sales skills.

The videos, which are available to view for free, cover the four principles of a sale, tips on how to better close a sale, and her latest, on how to have productive video meetings. Click here today to watch and learn how to make your business more profitable.


Carole Mahoney, as the founder of Unbound Growth, has coached Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial MBA students on sales and been featured as a top sales coach by Ambition and Sales Hacker. You can contact her directly at www.unboundgrowth.com.