In 1964 Bob Dylan sang the immortal line ‘for these time’s they are a changin’. Fast forward 55 years and fly across the Atlantic ocean to the United Kingdom, we encounter 2019 and another epoch of ‘changin’ times’ where political and societal uncertainty predominates.
The British people’s vote to leave the European Union has resulted in over two years of negotiation and wrangling, to the point where there is still no clear plan of action as to what the future relations between the UK and EU will be. Exactly what will happen next is still emerging.
Some have argued for a second referendum on the Brexit decision, which others have suggested would ask serious questions of the democratic system of government. Whatever personal or political agendas are at play, there are fundamental aspects of human decision-making and decisiveness that may explain why decisive action or clear consensus is so absent.
Some striking statistics are arising from my consulting on individual and organisational decision-making. These may go some way to explain why people are questioning what should happen next and why decisive action on the Brexit issue has been (and still is) proving so difficult to deliver.
The data we have gathered from over 1,600 assessments of individual decision-making suggests that being ‘decisive’ is much more complex than making firm or quick decisions. In fact, 55% of those assessed prefer to reverse or modify decisions they have previously made.
This is particularly the case when new information emerges or when the results of their initial decisions or instructions do not go as planned. This compares to 35% of people who will carefully deliberate whether or not to modify their decisions, and only 10% who will persevere and stick to their original decisions - regardless of setback or difficulties.
In addition to those numbers, 47% of those assessed reported that they are prone to afterthoughts and would often prefer to rethink and change their original decisions. This compares to 36% who may sometimes debate and amend their decisions, and only 17% who describe themselves as firm and unmoved on the choices they have made.
Of course, 1,600 people is a relatively small sample size from which to make any sweeping statements about a general population. As a professional Psychologist, I would never advocate such a thing. However, many of those assessed in this cohort have and do hold very senior executive, director or management positions where decisive action often comes with the day job.
Therefore, suggesting that a large proportion of people do not see decision-making as a time-bound activity would perhaps not be a misguided claim. Instead, they may view it as an evolving, fluid process that can be altered and may shift in time. My consulting experience would support such an interpretation - and not just in the UK but around the world. All sorts of things are moving human decision-making away from a ‘decide now and that’s it’ process. Technology in particular has radically changed how we ‘choose our choice’ and whether we choose to change it - again and again should we have the opportunity or wish to do so.
So any questions of the democratic system of government, second referendums, mandates etc. are perhaps not really the fundamental issues. It would seem more important (or at least prudent) to consider the nature of people’s decision-making behaviours, what the objective and subjective evidence suggests, and learn that people prefer to be really, really, REALLY sure before they firmly commit to a firm and final decision. Until tomorrow, that is…
Michael Johnson Director & Senior Consultant Psychologist Thompson Dunn Ltd. & Decision Profile Ltd.