Are you a fast thinker or a slow thinker, and what does this say about your ability as a leader?

In such a complex and uncertain environment, making the right call can be the difference between success and failure, so knowing how the decision-making process works can be enormously beneficial.

According to Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the School of Psychology, University of Reading, and tutor on Henley Business School’s Advanced Management Practice programme, ‘We can become so fixated on making good decisions that we lose sight of the fact that sometimes it’s better not to over analyse it. We tend to assume that it’s always better to think it through, but studies into the neuroscience of decision-making suggest that’s not necessarily the case.’

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Fast vs slow thinking

Patricia explains that when we make decisions based on cost–benefit analyses – associated with ‘slow’ thinking – our brain seems to have a capacity for around four sources of information at any one time. We might choose the most important four sources of information and so make the right decision, but if we don’t, we can be led in completely the wrong direction.

‘Fast’ thinking, on the other hand, has a much greater capacity for taking in information, and so our unconscious decision-making processes can be far more effective in reaching the best conclusion.

‘Good choices are more about the information going in, rather than the process itself,’ says Patricia, ‘but it does appear that using your intuition has some distinct advantages. And given that the unconscious decision-making part of the brain is fed sensory information from all parts of the body including our viscera (which feeds information to a part of the brain called the insula), the idea of “gut feeling” seems to make sense. We use both our sensory and our emotional processing to make unconscious decisions.

‘As a leader, you have to accept that you’ll be wrong sometimes, so it’s important to put measures in place to evaluate the effectiveness of your decisions. When you have time to assess what information is needed and when the decisions are not based on ambiguous or uncertain data, slow thinking still outperforms fast thinking. But this suggests that slow thinking may be a better management approach, while fast thinking is more suited to the complex decisions required in leadership.’

Fast thinking takes practice

Patricia is clear that fast thinking is a skill that can be developed, and it requires time and space to clear your mind and allow your subconscious to express itself.

‘Senior managers rarely allow themselves that time and space,’ she says, ‘and it’s an aspect of leadership we cover on the programme that often has a profound impact on the programme participants.

‘Frequently, great ideas come out of the blue when you get rid of the busyness. It may seem unproductive, but the science – and what we see from its application – tells us a very different story.’

To learn more about Henley’s Advanced Management Practice programme, click here.

Patricia Riddell 
Professor of Applied Neuroscience

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If you have any questions, please contact our programme advisors, Hannah, Ruhi & Diana by email at exec@henley.ac.uk or by phone on +44 (0)1491 418767.