The Four Components of Decision-Making
There are four components to decision-making: data gathering, information processing, meaning-making, and decision-making, or deciding on a course of action.
We use our five senses to gather data from the outside world – data gathering. We use our brain to integrate the data from the five senses into information packages – information processing. The mind then compares the incoming information package with the information packages stored in memory to find a match – meaning-making. When it finds a match, it releases the instructions attached to the memory along with any emotional charge associated with the memory, and these instructions result in actions and behaviours – decision-making. If the mind does not find a match, it uses reason and logic to formulate a response to the situation that is in alignment with its motivations. The response will be determined by many factors, the most important of which will be the level of consciousness the mind is operating from – what is important to the individual at that moment in time.
The instructions that are attached to memory are learned from previous experiences. The most deeply engrained instructions are those that we learned during childhood when our brain and mind were still growing and learning to cope with the world. The purpose of the instructions associated with a memory is to maintain or enhance internal stability and external equilibrium: the instructions tell us how to survive, how to feel safe and secure, and how to safeguard our self-respect.
The Five Modes of Decision-Making
There are five modes of decision-making. The difference between each mode of decision-making is the amount of emphasis that is given to each of the four components of decision-making. The five modes of decision-making are based on instincts, subconscious beliefs, conscious beliefs, values, and intuition.
Instinct-based decision-making is cellular based (DNA) and principally associated with issues of survival. For example, babies instinctively know how to suckle, how to cry when their needs are not being met, and how to smile so they get attention. No one taught them how to do this. It is encoded in the species DNA.
In adult life, instinct-based decision-making kicks in to help us survive and avoid dangerous situations. In certain situations, our instincts may cause us to put our life at risk in order to the save the life of another.
The main features of instinct-based decision-making are: a) actions always precede thought – there is no pause between meaning-making and decision-making for reflection, b) the decisions that are made are always based on past experiences – what our species history has taught us about how to survive and keep safe (maintain internal stability and external equilibrium). These instructions are encoded in the cellular memory of our DNA, and c) we are not in control of our actions and behaviours. They are in control of us.
Subconscious Belief-Based Decision-Making
In subconscious belief-based decision-making, we also react to what is happening in our world without reflection but on the basis of personal memories rather than cellular (DNA) memories. In this mode of decision-making action precedes thought. The action is often accompanied by the release of an emotional charge.
The emotional charge that accompanies the actions and behaviours in subconscious belief based decision-making can be positive or negative. Negatively charged emotions lead to the display of potentially limiting behaviours – blame, internal competition, rivalry, caution, etc. Positively charged emotions lead to the display of life-enhancing behaviours – openness, trust, cooperation, honesty, etc.
We know we are operating in this mode when we get angry, upset, shout at people, or generally behave badly towards others or in a self-serving manner. What is driving this behaviour is our subconscious fear-based beliefs around not having enough, not feeling safe or loved, not being enough, or not being respected – the fear-based beliefs associated with the first three levels of consciousness. These types of behaviour are always accompanied by a pent up negative emotional charge.
We also display sub-conscious belief-based decision-making when we display positive emotions such as tears of joy and feelings of pride and spontaneous happiness. In such cases, we are connecting with and releasing instructions associated with positively charged personal memories. Again, actions precede thought. Sub-conscious belief-based decision-making is similar to instinct-based decision-making. The only difference is that the memories and instructions that we are connecting with are contained in our personal memory, not in our cellular (species).
The main features of subconscious belief-based decision-making are: a) actions always precede thought – there is no gap between meaning-making and decision-making for reflection; b) the decisions that are made are always based on past experiences – what our personal history has taught us about how to maintain or enhance internal stability and external equilibrium at an individual level. This history is stored in our personal memory; c) we are not in control of our actions and behaviours. In this mode of decision-making the only way we can get back into conscious control is either to release or bottle-up our emotions. Releasing helps us to return to rationality. Bottling-up creates stress and frustration: we are storing up negative emotional energy for future release; d) it is very personal. Others cannot be consulted to enhance meaning-making and give support in reaching a decision; and, e) we are always operating from the shadow side of the first three levels of consciousness – the behaviours we are displaying are based on deeply held beliefs about not being able to survive with what we have (not having enough), not feeling safe (not belonging), and/or not being respected (not being enough).
Conscious Belief-Based Decision-Making
If we want to make rational decisions, we have to leave behind subconscious belief-based decision-making and shift to conscious belief-based decision-making. We are able to make rational decisions because we insert a pause between meaning-making and decision-making. The pause allows us time for reflection and thought so that we can use logic to understand what is happening and thereby make meaning out of the situation. In this mode of decision-making action follows thought.
We can only insert the pause if there is no emotional charge associated with the memories that are triggered by events in the outside world. In conscious belief-based decision-making we have time to think about what decision to make, and we have time to discuss with others and build consensus. However, conscious belief-based decision-making has one thing in common with subconscious belief-based decision-making: it uses information based on past experiences (what we think we know) to make decisions about the future. It creates a future very much like the past. At the best, the future we create is only incrementally different. We are using our beliefs based on past experiences to design our future experience.
Enabling leaders, managers and employees to make the shift from subconscious belief-based decision-making to conscious belief-based decision-making should be the purpose of personal alignment or personal transformation programs.. We are attempting to uncover and release the limiting beliefs that cause emotional upset and prevent leaders, managers and employees from fully living their own values and the organization’s values. These are also the limiting beliefs that are the root cause of much of the cultural entropy.
If we truly want to create the future we want to experience, we have to shift from conscious belief-based decision-making to values-based decision-making. That is not to say there is no place for conscious belief-based decision-making based on logic and rational thinking. There is. However, all critical decisions need to pass the values test.
The question we need to ask when making a decision is “Is this decision rational and is it in alignment with our values?” If it isn’t in alignment with your values then you should think again. A decision that is not in alignment with the organization’s espoused values lacks integrity. A decision that is not in alignment with your personal values lacks authenticity. You cannot create personal or group cohesion by making decisions that lack authenticity and integrity.
We make values-based decisions so that we can create the feeling we want to experience. If we value trust, then we make decisions that allow us to display and feel trust. If we value accountability, then we make decisions that allow us to display and feel accountable. When we make values-based decisions, we consciously create the future we want to experience. When we hold a vision, we consciously make decisions that keep us heading in that direction. When we have a mission, we consciously make decisions that support the attainment of that mission. In every case we are making decisions that help us consciously create the future we want to experience.
Values-based decision-making is different from conscious belief-based decision-making in that it de-emphasizes meaning-making. In other words, we are not attempting to match up packages of information that represent our current experience with the packages of information stored in our memory so that we can release instructions based on past experiences. We are taking the packages of information that are created by the brain and examining them in our minds without any predetermined judgment about how we should respond. We are effectively saying to ourselves “How can we respond to this situation in such a way that we are able to express our values?” We are trying to let our values guide our behaviour, not our beliefs. Values are universal concepts that transcend all contexts. Beliefs on the other hand are local and contextual.
As I have already indicated, what is remarkable is that organizations that live by their values are among the most successful organizations on the planet. This is the key theme in most successful company turnarounds. It is one of the principal conclusions in Collins and Porras’s book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.i Successful long-lasting companies live their values. It also is one of our major findings based on eight years of working with the Seven Levels of Consciousness model and the Cultural Transformation Tools. We have found that the most successful companies display full-spectrum consciousness – they operate with positive values at every level of consciousness.
The principal characteristics of intuition-based decision-making are as follows: a) data gathering and information processing take place in the normal way; b) judgment is suspended; no meaning-making takes places, subconscious or conscious; c) the mind is empty; thoughts, beliefs and agendas are suspended; d) the mind is free to make a deep dive into the mind-space of the collective unconscious; e) after a period of reflection, thoughts arise that are based on a deep sense of knowing; and f) the thoughts reflect wisdom; they focus on the common good; they are in alignment with our most deeply held values; and they give consideration to the long-term. They reflect what wants to emerge.
For most organizations, the shift from belief-based decision-making to values-based decision-making is already a stretch. The subsequent shift from values-based decision-making to intuition-based decision-making is for many a bridge-too-far. However, it is not necessarily a bridge-too-far for the more evolved leaders or managers in an organization – those that have developed full-spectrum personal consciousness.
What is different in this mode of decision-making is that there is no conscious or subconscious attempt at meaning-making, and there is no focus on the past or the future. The decision arises out of “presence” in the current moment. Beliefs lead to decisions based on past experiences. Values lead us to decisions based on the feelings we want to experience in the future. Intuition allows us to create a future based on the emergence of being. When we create the conditions that allow our minds to tap into the collective mind-space, our intuition informs us of what wants or needs to emerge.
Richard Barrett is the Founder and Chairman of the Barrett Values Centre. He is an internationally recognized author, consultant and keynote speaker on values-based leadership.
Barrett works with CEOs and senior executives in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia to develop vision-guided, values-driven organizational cultures that strengthen financial performance, build cultural capital, and support sustainable development.
He is the creator of the internationally recognized Cultural Transformation Tools (CTT), which have been used to support more than 1000 organizations in 42 countries in their transformational journeys.
Barrett is the author of A Guide to Liberating Your Soul (1995), Liberating the Corporate Soul: Building a Visionary Organization (1998), and Building a Values-Driven Organization: A Whole System Approach to Cultural Transformation (2006).
i James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperBusiness), 1994.