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Problem Solving and Decision-Making Skills

Wise Decision Making

Wise Decision Making

We make hundreds of decisions, both small and large every day but how do we ensure whether or not they are good ones or even better it is “wise” decision-making, meaning that they are good ones in the short, medium and longer term, as much as this is possible? To explore this subject let’s look at the two main criteria by which individuals tend to make decisions.

As the diagram below indicates it is “risk” and “reward” that dominate our thinking when making decisions, with the two pushing and pulling in almost every situation in which a choice needs to be made.

Decision-making “risk” and “reward” diagram

As the diagram illustrates, if these two factors run from low to high, we end up with a mental four quadrant decision-making grid as follows:

  1. High Risk, Low/No Reward
  2. Low Risk, Low/No Reward
  3. High Risk, High Reward
  4. Low Risk, High Reward.

The first of these quadrants tend to lead to negative decisions and the fourth to positive ones, but decisions are rarely this clear cut, so we need to better understand how we make decisions in the other two quadrants and to use as many tools as we can to make sure we can make as many of them right as we possibly can. 

Apart from risk and reward, research in the realm of cognitive science now strongly suggests that we all have two main modes of thinking when it comes to making decisions. The first and most instantaneous of these is intuitive thinking and decision-making (which psychologist Daniel Kahnemann calls Systems 1 thinking in his recent book “Thinking fast and thinking slow”).  The second and much slower and prone to therefore need time to deploy is reflective thinking and decision-making (which psychologist Daniel Kahnemann calls Systems 2 thinking). With intuitive, or System 1 decision-making, impressions, associations, feelings, intentions, and preparations for action occur quickly and we sense that we have an instinct for the right decision. In contrast reflective, or System Two, decision-making is very step-by-step, effortful, and deliberate and we work gradually towards an eventual decision (or even look for even more data if we can’t get there). Both these modes are continuously active and even interactive, but most of the time, System One Intuitive thinking drives most of our immediate decisions. This works well when the decision is relatively simple and straightforward but works far less well when the decision is complex or there are a lots of variables that need to be carefully weighed or calculations made. 

Although we cannot deploy the risk and reward criteria and intuitive and reflective modes of thinking in a formulaic way to see what may be the best decision to make in the circumstances, we can use this insight into how we tend to approach a problem to become more aware about our own style of decision making. With this in mind it is possible to describe four discrete approaches that people take: 

Intuitive or Systems 1 Styles:

A Focused Style

Individuals with a ‘focused’ personal decision-making style are likely to look for the core facts or the key information in a situation so as to be able to make a provisional decision relatively quickly in their mind. They will then look to confirm their provisional view by focusing on as much further confirmatory evidence as they can collect, and then select the option with the most advantages (or the least problems).

A Fast Style

Individuals with a ‘Fast’ personal decision-making style will be likely to be instinctive decision-makers, who like to think that they can quickly assimilate the available information and move immediately into action. Fast decision making style people typically dislike any kind of procrastination and can therefore often make creative decisions or even daring ones in order to reach a conclusion and move on. 

Reflective or Systems 2 Styles:

A Hesitant Style

Individuals with a ‘Hesitant’ personal decision-making style are likely to make decisions (particularly complex ones) only when they have all the facts or information that they need at hand. As a result, hesitant decision-makers like to consider issues at their own pace and to consider all the possible implications of one choice over another. Where this brings uncertainty, the preference would be not to make a decision at all.

A Reflective Style

Individuals with a ‘Reflective’ personal decision-making style will be likely to want to establish an external criteria by which to make a judgment or to understand the basis upon which a reasonable and appropriate decision can be made. Armed with as much data as they can gather, reflective styles types then like to take their time to think about the options and to use their reasoning ability to arrive at a decision that has been fully considered.

Most individuals will typically adopt one of these styles as dominant in most of their decision-making. However,  it is important to recognize that other styles may be more appropriate in some circumstances and as such, the individual may want to learn to take a different approach or work with someone who has a very different decision making style. Working together, better decisions can then be made and this may be crucial if the decision is an important one.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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