The week of April 3rd will be remembered as horrific for travelers on the east coast of the US. My flight from Washington, DC was postponed multiple times and eventually cancelled. Knowing the weather system headed up the east coast was ugly I booked a rental car for the next day. Hard rain, fog and hail made for misery and forced me to pull over multiple times to let a squall pass. Finally, in southern Virginia the rain stopped though the winds occasionally pushed my rental car sideways. I resisted the urge to make phone calls and kept two hands on the wheel and eyes wide open for other drivers who may drift, tailgate or otherwise threaten my safety. Good thing because something dramatic did happen and I needed my wits about me.

Something (at the time I didn’t know what) hit the windshield, shattering it. Glass was everywhere but that was of less concern for the moment than getting the car off the road safely. What happened over the next 2 to 3 minutes kept me safe for two reasons — first, luck and the second, I have studied the work of Daniel Kahneman, author (with Amos Tversky) of Decision Making Under Uncertainty. I thought “I need to slow down and be deliberate in what I do now because it could make the difference between survival and death.” I steered the car to the roadside as quickly as I felt safe and began a systematic process of checking to see how badly I was hurt. As best I could tell, I had superficial cuts from the glass; many for sure, but none serious.

Next, despite my desperate desire to get out of the car and shake off the glass, I realized that my injuries could be more serious than I thought. If I got out of the car and fainted on the side of the road, I would certainly be worse off. The story ends well. A fire truck, ambulance and State Trooper arrived. We determined that my injuries were shockingly minor…if you consider spitting glass a minor indicator.

So, why do I say that Daniel Kahneman helped me? I realized that this high stakes situation was no time to be on auto-pilot, what he calls System 1. What I needed was to think methodically and logically even though the urge to leap out of the car was hard to resist. When the stakes are high, and assuming there is time to make a conscious decision, slowing down allows us to take in and consider information beyond what is most prominent and to think through decisions. We can always choose the option that was our immediate instinct but we don’t need to be stuck with it.

In terms of thinking and decision-making, I actually had a couple of distinct advantages. First, it was just me figuring out what to do…there was no social pressure, no one advocating a course of action, no agenda other than my own to be safe. Second, the severity of the situation was obvious. In business, danger can lurk or be hidden by multiple factors, including over-confidence on the part of the leader and competing agendas of those around her.

This is all the more reason why slowing your thinking down can help you see what you might not otherwise and recognize the winds of influence at work. If I can do this when I am extremely frightened and in literal danger, then business leaders can surely do this when they need to make a decision in high stakes situations.

It occurred to me, days later, that my work with clients helps leaders to slow down, look at things differently and consider the invisible dynamics that, while unseen, are powerful. I’ve heard that from clients for years but now I have a new appreciation for what they mean and a renewed sense of purpose.

What are you doing to get out of your thinking routines, to challenge yourself and to learn how to think about thinking and how to make great decisions when the stakes are high?

Tversky, A.; Kahneman, D. (1974). “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases”. Science. 185 (4157): 1124–1131.

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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