The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our work. The pandemic has changed how we relate with our families. It has also impacted our sense of safety, security, and health. This crisis, coupled with recent burgeoning social unrest, presents unique challenges to leaders. So, how—when we’re consumed by what’s around us—can we make better business decisions? Decisions that could make or break our business?
One answer comes from leaders in the profession at the center of the COVID crisis: expert medical practitioners. In other words, the people who frequently make life-or-death decisions for the people in front of them.
How do they stay focused and keep their decision-making sharp?
Better Business Decisions: The Answer Lies in Metacognition
Dr. Jerome Groopman, chief of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Recanati chair of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and his wife, Dr. Pamela Hartzband, an attending physician in the Division of Endocrinology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, shared how they do it.
“Pam developed a simple procedure when she was an intern in medical school many years back,” Groopman told us. “To her, it was like a game she played to stay sharp. She asked herself, ‘What if that other doctor who made the diagnosis is wrong? What else could it possibly be? What am I basing my decisions on?’”
By asking these questions, Hartzband took herself off automatic pilot and became aware of her thinking—a process known as metacognition.
Together, Groopman and Hartzband introduced courses at Harvard Medical School to teach medical school students and practicing physicians these metacognitive “thinking rules,” which foster self-awareness, reveal bias, and increase the diagnoses’ accuracy.
The good news? This approach, often used outside of the medical field, is incredibly potent in the times we now face.
How Metacognition Works in Times of Crisis
Metacognition will help you keep better track of—and help reduce—errors in your thinking. It also helps you be more emotionally balanced and stable. When you metacognate, you act as your own consultant or trainer, giving helpful feedback to better yourself.
Metacognition steers you onto more realistic, thoughtful paths—facilitating critical thinking and putting you more in control. If you observe an emotion or thought that isn’t helpful, flag it, and alter it. If you catch yourself rushing to judgment, slow your thinking process down. Keep a critical eye on the quality of your thinking. By monitoring yourself more frequently, you’ll keep from veering off into irrational thinking, even when the world around us is upside down.
To practice metacognition and think about your thinking, start with these five strategies:
1. Name Your Mental Steps
How did you arrive at your decision? If you can’t name the steps that led to a decision, be suspicious. Ask yourself: Are your information sources reliable?
Always question your decisions and how you make them. Ask yourself: “Did I miss something? What if I’ve been making decisions based on an erroneous starting point or piece of bad information? Are there other ways to approach making this decision? Am I questioning deeply enough?”
2. Learn from Past Mistakes and Misjudgments
Don’t bury prior mistakes. Instead, incorporate these memories into your current thinking to improve your decision-making.
3. Stay Open and Self-aware
Be open to learning from everyone. Also, be an active listener and value many opinions.
- What is my thinking style?
- What is my personality?
- Where do my biases surface?
- Do I hesitate to ask questions because I want to appear competent?
- How might my ways of thinking and personality influence how I make assessments and also reach conclusions?
4. Don’t Rush
Experienced decision-makers in high-stress environments all emphasize the importance of slowing down.
Taking your time—even when others or circumstances are rushing you—is essential to making accurate decisions.
5. Don’t Get Seduced by Shortcuts
Know when you’re placing too much confidence in preset protocols, computer algorithms, or attractive charts that crisply lay out solutions. Are you accepting someone else’s “frame” of the problem? Are you relying on others to make your decisions for you by accepting their conclusion too readily?
Multiple crises, combined with the uncertainty we face, thwarts our efforts to make sound decisions. So, the next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that feels rushed, reactive, or not right? Don’t ignore it and reflexively press on.
Instead, exercise the discipline to stop. Pay attention to that signal. If the path you’re on doesn’t seem right? Pause, reflect, and, if necessary, get off that path.
Then put yourself onto a better route. Or create a new one.
As you consistently demonstrate the ability to make better business decisions, others will learn to follow your lead.
This post was co-authored by Dr. Anthony Rao, Ph.d., a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Rao has also been an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He’s been a featured expert in documentaries and also appears regularly as an expert commentator and author.
The new book by Dr. Napper and Dr. Rao is The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms (St. Martin’s Press; 2019). Learn more at PowerofAgency.com.