Decades of solid, scientific research has confirmed what most lay people would likely assume to be true: that leaders who deliberate by weighing relevant facts and consequences before making an informed decision usually make better decisions than those who don’t.
That would seem to be especially true when decision makers are confronted with a new problem about which they have no prior knowledge.
It’s not surprising that most people think that way. I recently conducted a series of studies with Malia Mason, professor of business management and vice dean for research at Columbia Business School in New York City, and Liza Wiley, who earned her Ph.D.in management at Columbia and now works at Google Cloud Healthcare & Life Sciences. Our studies found that men and women who were presented with decision-making vignettes consistently said they would deliberate for several seconds before offering their solutions, rather than answering instantly, with no deliberation.
Indeed, 88 percent said they would deliberate in a hypothetical corporate budget shortfall scenario, and 75 percent chose deliberation when they put themselves in the shoes of a presidential candidate faced with an unexpected budget shortfall.
So when we’re in the hot seat, we seem pretty sure that deliberative thinking is a positive trait. But do we expect other high-powered decision-makers, whether they be corporate CEOs or U.S. presidential candidates, to act the way we would?
In a word, no. In fact, the somewhat startling truth is that while deliberation may lead to better decisions, it is a liability when it comes to gaining influence. Our studies found that being a deliberative thinker may actually be an impediment to gaining a position of influence—even though research shows that deliberation tends to improve the quality of a leader’s decisions.
What we found is that, across different scenarios, study participants judged leaders who chose to deliberate instead of making a snap decision—even if they were previously unfamiliar with the problem posed to them—as less competent and less influential.
This was true regardless of the gender of the participants in the study or the hypothetical characters used in the scenarios. Whether the hypothetical corporate CEO or presidential candidate was Chris or Christine, male and female study participants questioned their competence and influence if they took time to think before acting.
This has profound implications for how we think about leadership. Being an articulate, polished speaker, someone with a sense of style who exhibits such personality traits as dominance, being an extrovert, and confidence, is not enough. Our research suggests that the process a person uses to reach a decision can negatively affect whether others view them as competent.
There was one exception: When we presented a scenario that explicitly stated the hypothetical leader had a history of effective leadership, study participants did not hold deliberation against them. Which makes sense. After all, “incompetence” seems an unlikely explanation for someone’s deliberation if they have already proven themselves competent.
Does this all mean that an aspiring leader should avoid deliberating on decisions? Absolutely not. As I mentioned earlier, the research is consistent and clear that deliberation tends to lead to better decisions.
But there are some practical implications. If a decision maker wants to avoid losing influence and being viewed as less competent, with less leadership potential, he or she may want to consider deliberating privately before making their decision known in public.
Another possible strategy would be to make a point of highlighting previous successes that establish their competency.
One other takeaway from our work is that organizations—and perhaps our society more broadly—needs to think about what we value most in our leaders. Our studies suggest that thoughtful leaders who prefer to gather as much relevant information as they can before making decisions that can affect the lives and careers of so many might have a hard time getting promoted. But, sometimes, the qualities that get you promoted into leadership positions are the same qualities that prevent you from effectively performing in one’s leadership role.
Deliberating less may help you get promoted or elected, but may not help you lead once you are there.
What if deliberative thinkers did not have to hide this strength from their peers just to be considered competent and influential?
Maybe we should think about what we are missing out on by passing over for advancement those potential leaders who use a decision-making process that research consistently shows actually improves results—a process that the overwhelming majority of people in our study said they would use themselves if they were the leaders in the scenarios we provided.