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Executive Decisions

"The optimal amount of confidence depends on the task at hand." That’s the essence of the insight offered in Left Brain, Right Stuff by Phil Rosenzweig, as reviewed by David A. Shaywitz in The Wall Street Journal (1/28/14). The advice is meant for business executives, whose decisions are inherently rife with cognitive bias. "For instance, executives are frequently counseled to avoid overconfidence," but according to Phil, "the term is almost always invoked after the fact to explain a failure; in the context of success, the same quality is described differently."

When the outcome determines the distinction between overconfidence and confidence, it’s obviously hard for executives to "calibrate their enthusiasm" accordingly. "Leaders must somehow balance dispassionate analysis (traditionally if imprecisely associated with the left side of the brain) and inspirational execution involving risk and a competitive spirit – ‘the right stuff.’" What’s more, their decisions typically "are complicated by the dynamics of competition." Unless they take big risks, their decisions are likely to leave them in the middle of the pack.

"In a competitive game with skewed payoffs … only those who are willing to defy the odds will be in a position to win," says Phil. Nor does practice make for perfect decisions. Unlike Kaizen, "a system of continual improvement common in manufacturing," good decision-making isn’t "like shooting baskets," Phil writes. Practice works largely because of instant feedback on results. With decisions, it can be years before the results are known, "and by that time it can be hard to connect cause and effect." "The more important the decision," writes Phil, "the less opportunity there is for deliberate practice."