Denial is more than just a river in Eqypt

It is typical of many leaders that they will delay making a decision about an important and even hazardous problem simply because they cannot or do not want to make a choice between their various options. 


The leader may be hoping the problem will disappear or solve itself.  This strategy is often successful with minor problems because minor problems generally lose importance over time and thus “disappear.”  However, the problem with this delaying strategy is that MAJOR PROBLEMS usually do not go away or solve themselves.  In fact, over time, major problems tend to get worse if corrective actions have not been initiated to resolve them.  Furthermore, with many problems, your available options may become more limited over time as team moral and resources dwindle.  Finally, indecision can lead to additional adverse consequences such as resentment or anger in yourself or other team members. This article describes common causes of indecision and strategies for making better decision.

There are many reasons why leaders fail to reach a decision and often allow precious minutes, hours, days and even years to pass by with very little action being taken. These reasons include:

 Denial, avoidanceand a failure to recognize the seriousness of the problem.  Denial is a common and often useful “coping” strategy. It is often learned in childhood that if you ignore a problem long enough, your parents will take care of it for you.   For reasons stated above however, in adulthood this coping strategy can be fatal. For one thing, your parents may be less willing to help you.   A leader must be aware of this human tendency to deny that anything is wrong and instead be willing to accept that problems will occur.  This skill can be attained by examining your personal attitude about problems.  If you tend to look at problems as a “threat” to your well-being and things to be avoided (my mom is fond of saying:  “There is no problem so big or complex that it cannot be run away from.”) then you will tend to react to problems with denial and avoidance.  This reaction will interfere with your ability to solve problems and your willingness to reach a productive decision.On the other hand, if you look positively at problems as a challenge and as an opportunity to learn and grow, then you will be less likely to fall into the trap of denial and you will find it much easier to reach a decision and solve your problems.

 Fear.  This is a common and natural reaction to a crisis.  Fear has a positive survival value in that it will help you avoid hazardous situations to begin with.  However, fear has a down-side in that is a response of your old brain (or dinosaur brain) which prevents you from using your new brain (or thinking brain) which is what you really need to access if you are going to make a good decision.  Fear also causes the blood to go toward the core and away from the brain thus further hampering your decision making capacity.

      There are many kinds of fear.  Three that have an adverse effect during problem solving include:
i)  Fear of death (yours or others).  Taking a few deep breathes and improving your self-esteem (see below) will help you reduce this fear.
ii) Fear of failure or making a bad decision.  Positive mental imaging (also below) will help reduce this fear.
iii) Fear of change.  One of the biggest blockers to reaching a decision is fear of change.  The longer we avoid or deny a problem or delay a decision, the longer we can put off the threat of a change in the circumstances.  Change is fearful primarily because it involves the UNKNOWN.  Before the problem was noticed, we had a positive vision in our minds. Suddenly, we are confronted with an unanticipated problem.  We are now going from a known and certain future into an unknown and uncertain future and it is because it is unknown and uncertain that fear of change is a factor.  ______ One of the primary benefits of learning and practicing “structured problem solving methods” as described in this hand-out is that, once you are familiar with and confident in using this method, you are not subject to an unknown and uncertain future when a problem occurs.  Instead you can use this problem solving structure and relate your new problem to past experiences.  You still will have change.  But instead of outright panic, you’ll instead focus on using problem solving steps one through seven.  The difference is you will have less fear because your future will be known and structured rather than unknown and unstructured.

 Lack of Self-Esteem.  A positive self-image, self-confidence and a positive mental attitude can help you overcome a wide variety of fears such as fear of death and fear of failure.  Leader decisions are often delayed because the leader simply lacks the confidence to trust their own decision making ability.  A voice inside their head is telling them that they are no good, that they can’t do it and that they will fail.  This lack of self-esteem and lack of self-confidence is rooted deeply in the leaders self-image often the result of overly critical parents, partners or past teachers.  This does not mean however that you, as a leader, are simply stuck with having low self-esteem because you were criticized when you were a kid!  An important part of becoming a  leader is taking steps to improve your self-esteem and self-confidence so that, if you are ever required to make an important decision in a crisis situation, you will have the self-confidence to make that decision without the self-doubt and second guessing that would only make the situation worse. 
Things you can do to improve your self-esteem include:
i)   Forgiving those who criticized you and put you down in the past.  You cannot change and move on to your future until you first understand and let go of negative events in your past.  Those who harmed you in the past did not do so on purpose and in fact they probably thought their criticism would somehow help you improve.  The best adventures begin by letting go of the baggage from your past.
ii)   Practice making daily positive self-affirmations.  Make a list of all your strengths and positive attributes.  Start by listing at least twenty positive characteristics that you have.  Keep this list by your bed and read it to yourself, preferably out loud, at least once a day (either when you first wake up or just prior to going to sleep). 
iii)  Be alert for compliments.  When someone tells you something positive about yourself, make a mental note of it.  As soon as you can, write it down.  That evening, add it to your list of positive attributes.  When your list has reached fifty distinct attributes, congratulate yourself on achieving the goal of positive self-esteem!  Celebrate by taking a day or evening off to do one of your favorite activities.
iv)  Maintain your positive self-image by being alert for negative or destructive behaviors.  The most common destructive behavior is negative self-talk.  This includes thinking things like “I’m always screwing up” and “I’ll never be able to do that” and “I don’t like myself.”  Listen to the thoughts you think.  Be alert for these kinds of negative statements.  Whenever you catch yourself thinking or saying these kinds of things, try to visualize a red and white STOP sign in your mind.  Then try to replace those thoughts with thoughts that are more positive and include your ability to control your destiny.  These thoughts might include “I may make mistakes but I have the ability to learn from my mistakes”, “the task may be difficult but I know that I can do it if I just keep trying and take things one step at a time” and I’m not perfect but I’m a pretty good person and I’m going to work on becoming even better”.
v)    Maintain your positive self-image by rechannelling the negative thoughts and behaviors of others.  When you criticize yourself, you reduce you self-esteem.  When others criticize you, your self-esteem is reduced even more.  Rather than being subjective and letting the criticism of others damage your self-esteem, try instead to be objective and to understand why the other person is criticizing you.  Perhaps they are having a bad day.  Also try to understand the real message being conveyed.  Rather than hearing the negative message that was sent “you are a lousy driver”, try instead to hear the positive action that the sender would have sent you had they been better at communicating.  Empathize with the criticize by saying “I imagine you are feeling like I’m driving too fast and you would like me to slow down?”
vi)      Maintain the positive self-image of other by avoiding criticizing others.  If you have had a problem in the past of criticizing others, try to work instead on becoming more patient with others short comings, more tolerant about others differences and more flexible about others behaviors.  Try to look at it as an opportunity for you to learn and grow.  Whenever I am stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, I tell myself “this is a giant classroom.  God is teaching me to become a more patient person”.  Sometimes I think my whole life is a lesson about being more patient and tolerant and flexible.  None of these attributes come easily or naturally to me. 

 It seems however that they are all key attributes in surviving our modern world.  So when you find yourself losing patience and about to criticize those around you, try to find some other more positive way to communicate your concern instead of saying “Don’t look down when you cross that log”, try instead to say “keep your eyes focused several feet ahead of you when you cross that log”.  Moreover, allow your group members time to learn on their own by discovery and save your advice for times when safety is an issue. 

Decision making can also be blocked by KITCHEN SINKINGor trying to solve too many problems at one.  It is essential at Step Two to narrow your focus, prioritize and work on problems one at a time.  If the problem is difficult or complex, try to break the problem down into smaller, simpler problems and work on each of these one at a time. 

Another decision-making blocker is cognitive dissonance or doubt.  Mental uncertainty often comes from trying to choose from too many options.  Decisions are best made by first eliminating the worst options until you reach a point where there are only two or at most three options left.  The remaining options can then be looked at and contrasted more closely and a decision made more easily.  Cognitive dissonance will also be strongly felt whenever you are forced to choose between two options which are both perceived as being negative or having negative consequences.  The solution to this dilemma involves either coming up with more options or changing your perception of the options available.  Instead of looking at the possible negative aspects of your options (which is what you should do to eliminate options in narrowing down your focus to two options), you must now shift gears completely and focus instead on the POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES of the two remaining options.  What are the good points of the remaining options.  Instead of dwelling on the possible hazards of the options, you should now focus on your chances of success.  By seeing the situation as choosing between two good options, either of which might have a high chance of success, you will feel more comfortable about reaching a decision.  Your job is now choosing which not option is least likely to fail but rather which option has the highest chance of success.
A very common blocker to decision-making is ambivalence or “grey-thinking”.  Some people have a difficult time making decisions simply because they are good at seeing both sides of practically any issue or any option.  This is a very useful skill to have during problem solving Step Four when you are considering the advantages and drawbacks of each option.  However, ambivalence can work against you once you move to Step Five and have to make a decision as to which option to actually pursue.  It is helpful to try to mentally shift gears when you go from Step 4 to Step 5.  Think GREY at Step 4 but when you move to Step 5, try to change your thought process to black and white thinking.  If you are the kind of person who has difficulty deciding what to order at a restaurant, this bit of advice may be easier said that done.  However, by practicing black and white thinking when you go to restaurants (and the other decision-making strategies described above such as eliminating options until you have only two left and then rapidly choosing one over the other), you will be better able to make a confident decision in a crisis situation.  Finally, if you find that ambivalence is still blocking you path to a decision, consider asking a black and white thinker in the group (or the group as a whole) to decide the option for you.  You may even want to bring along a black and white thinker on the outing with you simply to help you with these kinds of tough decisions.
Conversely, if you are a natural black and white thinker, be aware that this will limit your ability to carry out Step Four and adequately analyze your options.  In fact, most black and white thinkers will have a very difficult time even seeing more than one possible option.  This blindness will prevent them from even considering other, possibly safer and more desirable options.  Perhaps a more accurate term for how they see the world is “black or white” thinking.  If you suffer from this limitation, you should try to practice GREY THINKING when you go to a restaurant.  Make sure you actually read the menu and clearly understand what your options are.  Avoid the tendency to simply choose the first item that seems “palatable”!  And when you are faced with a problem, try to at least consider the possibility at STEP FOUR that the first option you liked may not be the best possible option.  Spend at least 30 seconds on each alternative option before rejecting it as unworthy.  Finally, if you find grey thinking simply too difficult, you should consider bringing a GREY THINKER along on the outing with you to assist you with fully weighing your options prior to making tough decisions.
Another blocker to decision-making is trying to make a decision based upon inadequate information.  If you do not have a good knowledge of the risks of each option, you will not have the information you need to make a good decision as to which option to pursue.  This will lead to doubt and delays in decision making.  Likewise if you are trying to decide between two options, the more information you can gather about each, the easier it will be for you to arrive at a decision.  If you are faced with a decision, as a leader, that you do not feel you have adequate information to resolve, you should try to seek out MORE INFORMATION prior to making your decision.  This may involve consulting other members of your group, brainstorming for more options and reassessing the available resources.  However, the ultimate solution to this dilemma is simply to increase your base of knowledge through diligent study of potential hazards and their evaluation prior to going on your outing.

A final road block to decision making is INEXPERIENCE,particularly inexperience at making decisions in a crisis situation.  This is perfectly understandable.  After all, how many real crisis situations do you face in the average lifetime?  Hopefully, not that many.  It is natural then that inexperience will be a limiting factor. There is a saying that “good judgment comes from experience…but experience itself comes from bad judgment.”  The key is to develop experience in non-crucial situations so that you will develop good judgment without exposing you or your group to risk.  Good experiences include:
i)        Practicing crisis management and decision making in a realistic but controlled scenario.  This is the whole point to the scenarios used in this leadership course, namely to allow you to practice your problem solving and decision making skills in a realistic but controlled environment.  Other courses which allow you to practice in realistic scenarios include the Mountaineering Oriented First Aid Course (MOFA) and Search and Rescue training with one of a variety of Search and Rescue groups here in King County.
ii)        In addition to learning from our own scenerios, you can also learn from watching what other students do during their scenerios.  Ask yourself what you would have done if you were the leader in that situation.  Also, try to evaluate what they did right and what they could have done differently.
iii)       You can also learn from watching other leaders.  However, when you watch another leader, try to view the outing not from the standpoint of a group member but rather try to visualize yourself as the leader of that group.  Always be asking yourself what you would do differently, what is the leader doing well that you might emulate and what is the leader doing wrong that you might note and try to avoid on outings you might lead.

          The more leaders you assist and the more experience you gain, the more easily you will be able to handle a crisis when or if it ever happens to you or your group. You can also learn from the bad experiences of other leaders by reading books such as Accident Reports in North American Mountaineering.

ii)               When you do finally begin to lead your own outings, begin with short easy outings, closer to civilization on more heavily traveled routes.  This will help to minimize the adverse consequences of any potential problems and allow you to build your experience and therefore good judgment by dealing with problems that have easier solutions.


In addition to making a decision, you should try to BE DECISIVE.  The group is more likely to remain calm and help you carry out the plan if you sound and act organized, positive and confident.  Groups may need leaders in general to help them go in the correct direction.  But when groups really need leaders is when there is a crisis or a problem which needs to be solved.  Even if you are not entirely confident of the plan, you should act confident in order to instill confidence in your group and give the plan its greatest chances of success. You will also find that once you stop thinking and stop talking about the problem and begin to actually act and take steps to solve the problem that not only will your group start feeling better, but you, also, will start to feel better.

Decision Making Summary

1.       Recognize problems.  Avoid denial.
2.       Use structure and practice to overcome fear.
3.       Work on a positive self-image.
4.       Solve one problem at a time.
5.       Reduce options to two by analyzing negative consequences.
6.       Decide between last two options by focusing on positives of each.
7.       Use gray thinking to evaluate options.
8.       Use black and white thinking to decide between options.
9.       Gather needed information prior to making your decision.
10.     Gain experience through practice in non-crucial situations.

1. Define your self-worth from within.
2. Praise yourself.
3. Learn to forgive yourself.
4. Set reasonable goals.
5. Reward yourself.
6. Accept that you are imperfect.
7. Build a spiritual life.
8. Do things for other people.
9. Focus on the positive.
10. Don't procrastinate.
11. Do something nice for yourself each day.
12. Build laughter and fun into your life.
13. Become assertive.
14. Learn to be flexible.
15. Surround yourself with nourishing people.
16. Dont compare yourself with others.
17. Keep your promises.
18. Avoid toxic people and situations.
19. Love and accept yourself.