Barriers to Decision Making

Note: references for this section are coded within square brackets. The complete citations may be found here.

Decision making is not easy. Sure, there are trivial decisions, such as “pancakes or waffles” for breakfast, but for the most part we are concerned here with more meaningful deliberations. Why is decision making often difficult? The answer is that there are many potential complications in the decision making process. These include emotional, environmental, educational, cultural, and physiological factors.

Lack of information

Another major impediment in decision making is that leaders must often work with limited information, and this is often exacerbated by the scarcity of time, both of which conspire to mean that decisions and actions must follow in quick succession, without allowing time for full consideration of alternatives and implications.

Lack of context

The toughest decisions are often those that seem to be made in a vacuum. In such situations there are no reference points, no structure to rely on for cues or precedents. The lack of context or structure can also refer to the absence of values. Important decisions are also often those which require us to examine our values more closely, or to reconcile them with seemingly conflicting values. Research has shown that morals or values may affect us inconsistently. For example, we may say that we are in favor of organic farming, but when faced with higher prices for organic products we may elect not to buy them. We may dislike an energy company’s record on the environment, but will still stop at its gas stops to refuel.

Another example of lack of context comes from our increasing reliance on electronic communications such as email. While a contributor to productivity, email as a communication mechanism is “… impersonal, informal and lacking in context.” [WOMD page 203]. The impersonal aspect of email makes it easier for correspondents to escalate negative comments, undermining the development of positive relationships, and in turn reducing the ability of people to reach meaningful decisions and compromises. Another significant deficiency of email communication is that it deprives the corresponding parties of much needed contextual signals. To put this into perspective, as little as “…7% [of spoken communication] comes from literal meaning of words.” [WOMD page 207, attributed to Albert Mehrabian]. The implication is that as much as 93% of meaning comes from non-verbal and other verbal cues, and this may be lost in context-less email. The quality and value of communication is undermined by the absence of these non-verbal and verbal cues. This makes it more likely that misunderstandings will arise, and that subsequent decisions will be suboptimal.

Too much information (Noise)

Overwhelming volume of information can drown out any ability to assess a situation reliably and in timely fashion. The numerous ways in which sequences of decisions may unfold can make it very difficult to make decisions. It’s often very difficult for a leader to stay on top of every detail or have a readily available countermove. One way we respond to overwhelming information is by side-stepping detailed analysis, and instead relying on good old fashioned instinct, or gut feeling. In fact, humans have reasonable skill in pattern recognition (the dominant scientific explanation of intuition). Unfortunately, instincts can often be wrong.

Lack of feedback and practice

We often don’t get feedback from subordinates, peers and supervisors. The lack of feedback can be a strong constraint to progress and innovation.

Cultural barriers

In an increasingly globalized world, we come into contact with people whose perspectives, values, languages, etiquette and cultures may differ significantly from ours. This can lead to misunderstandings which adversely affect decision making. Cultural differences may also directly influence decision making approaches. One may broadly characterize two culturally distinct approaches to decision making: Eastern and Western. The Western is often associated with quick, impulsive decisions and actions, while the Eastern is slower, more comprehensive and contemplative.

Action - Reaction

It is not trivial to predict the actions and reactions of others. Important decisions are often those that involve a counterpart or opponent: there is rarely certainty about what the counterpart or opponent will do. He, she, or it may respond instinctively, thoughtfully, vindictively, or dishonestly. The counterpart may plot, scheme, or pre-empt. And of course, there are situations in which our decisions will affect and be affected by multiple counterparts, each a potential source of feints and surprises. Game theory provides the academic underpinnings for considering moves and countermoves by other parties.

Unhelpful theory

All too often when it comes to decision making, the theory we are taught proves unhelpful in real world situations. Traditional decision making theory is built on rationality, and utility maximization. These theories tend to ignore emotion, and when they do include it, assume that emotion and complexity can be handled rationally and accurately. The entire field of game theory presumes that our rational moves will be countered rationally by opponents, leading to a rational response on our part and again a similarly rational response, and that this pattern continues to an equilibrium point. Theory and environment (media and educational institutions) lead us to believe that business is all about “winner take all.” Until recently, behavior models and other objective functions allowing for more than profit maximization were ignored and or ridiculed.


We must never forget the physical or biological basis to making decisions. The organ responsible for cognition and decisions is, of course, the brain. Brain functions may be adversely affected by aging, disease, or other physiological factors such as fatigue or chemical imbalance/depletion. Any of these may lead to sub-optimal decision making.


Being human, we bring a lot of psychological baggage to the decision making table. We tend to allow politically induced emotions to shape decisions. We allow our egos to dictate directions. We may respond impatiently, overreact or procrastinate. Some decisions may be overly motivated by the interest of minimizing future regret or avoidance of taking blame for potential failure. To cover our mistakes we make up stories and even begin to believe them. We hide painful truths from colleagues, bosses, friends and family with the hope that these embarrassments will naturally or supernaturally disappear. If some potential factor in a decision leads to negative emotion and distress, we may (consciously or subconsciously) ignore that factor, pretending it isn’t there or isn’t relevant. We may also make a decision with the hope that it will make more people like us. And of course, many of our decisions are deeply affected by extreme emotions such as fear or love.


More on psychological barriers to decision making.

Given the many impediments to decision making, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all!

The widely accepted solution to these complicating factors is awareness. The simple awareness that we may be susceptible to one or several of these factors is the first line of defense, allowing us to introspect, seek the advice of others, and move forward more objectively to improve decision making.


Citations for the Decision Making section