Ask Leadership Expert – The Rocky Road of Decision Making

Lately I have been thinking a lot about things that get in the way of effective leadership decision making. Two common diversions off the rocky road of decision making are overconfidence and pride. Let’s talk about them.

Overconfidence bias in decision making is big-time real. Research has found that, when people believe they are 65 to 75 percent confident they are correct about something, they were actually right only about half the time. And when people believe they are 100 percent certain about something, they actually tended to be 75 to 85 percent correct.

Based on my observations over the years, this overconfidence often occurs when managers venture outside of their area of expertise or when they simply don’t know what they’re dealing with. Successful leaders are willing to admit (at least to themselves) when they don’t know everything. The good news: Managers are less likely to show overconfidence as they become more knowledgeable about a topic or an issue.

The cousin of overconfidence is pride. Have you witnessed managers wasting time and resources to lost causes because they don’t want to admit that they made a mistake in going with that decision in the first place? I can think of a few peppery words to describe this phenomenon, but there is actually a technical term for this in the field of organizational behavior. Escalation of commitment is staying committed to a decision even when there is clear evidence that the decision is wrong.

Research shows that managers will often stay with their failing course of action when they perceive themselves as responsible for the failure or problem. Because consistency is seen as such a strong characteristic of effective leadership, some managers don’t want to change direction once they’ve mapped out their route to Successville. Yet, effective leaders have the ability to differentiate between situations where persistence will pay off and situations where sticking with the original plan will lead down a dead-end road.

Have you seen managers exhibit overconfidence or escalate commitment in decision making? What was the result?

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Keith McDonald

This is interesting in parallel to what I posted a few weeks back about overpromising/underpromising. I think it isn’t so much overconfidence that kills us as it is our overpromising deliverables. Decision makers need to be realistic in project management. I always liked the term “scope creep” because it really defines what seems to happen. Being able to say: “wrong move” or “wrong decision” is a part of avoiding that and it may be fear that impacts on whether you come right out and say it. Fear that the managers above you may want you to stay the course. Ultimately the differences here between private and government is stunning. At least in my experience (having worked both sides), accountability is spread wider in government and, when it hits the fan, it’s harder to say who made the wrong decisions. Though, if you consult staff, they could provide a lot more answers than often given credit. My final comment: we need competition within our areas to engender a better sense of decision making – without it, we tend to lose sense of consequences. How many people do you know that have moved upward after a project even though the project itself never really attained its goal?

Joe Flood

I’ve worked as a web project manager. I know enough of the technology to avoid overconfidence. I’ve coded HTML by hand, worked in Dreamweaver, blogged with WordPress, etc… Having used all these tools myself, I know that creating web sites can be surprisingly labor-intensive work. Sometimes, when it comes to creating web sites, managers think that sites are built by the “magic box”, as one friend said.

I’ve joked with web developers that I know just enough to be dangerous. But the truth is that I know just enought to realize how much work goes into a successful web site. I think that learning how work gets done, and doing some of it yourself, helps to ground you in the real world and is the cure for overconfidence.

Craig Kessler

That happens all the time where the higher up persona believe their opinion is more important based on their position when the reality is they may not be as informed in certain ways as someone below them who would recommend a different course of action. You see this happening a lot now involving strategies on the internet when those in charge may be too unfamiliar about the industry to make a true decision, but do so based on their decision.


Escalation of commitment is a real issue that is just really hard. No one likes admitting failure and we’ve never been trained on doing it right. I even see escalation of commitment all the time in personal life whether it’s putting $1000 in to a used car that’s on life support to staying an extra hour after paying a $5 cover just because I paid the cover.

Kitty Wooley

This is an interesting discussion. Well said, everybody. Scott, I wonder if lack of confidence may not be equally problematic, leading to a failure to act or innovate when a situation calls for action or innovation?

Don Jacobson

You make a lot of great points, Scott. I think another element of pride is being too proud to ask colleagues, or subordinates for input when making key decisions. Varied perspectives can help the decision-maker aware of more options/pitfalls and develop a more well thought-out decision. Lots of bosses are afraid to show they don’t have all the answers and thus don’t ask others for their input.

K. Scott Derrick

Keith, Joe, Craig, Steve, Kitty & Don: Thank you for your comments and the great dialogue.

Yeah, overpromising and underdelivering is a big pothole on the road to Successville for managers. Asking colleagues or subordinates for their views can be a great way to gain additional input into decision making. They often have useful information and a different perspective. In addition to overconfidence, there could be various dynamics standing in the way of a manager seeking out this input, including a fear of being seen as a “weak” manager, a perceived lack of time needed to undertake this outreach, or a lack of confidence to make the move. Joe: I just finished taking a CSS class; I have a new-found respect for web developers!