The ability to make decisions quickly and confidently is widely lauded in our culture. But whether decisiveness is a virtue or not seems to depend, as usual, on the context.
Situation A. You know a lot about the relevant variables of your decision and you have reliable intuitions about how they interact and how tweaking them will affect the outcome of each potential action. This might be your situation at work: you are skilled and experienced enough to know what to do, so it’s easy for you to be decisive; and unless you are deluded about your true level of expertise, your decisiveness will also be good.
Situation B. You don’t care about the outcome of your decision on, say, where to go to eat or what clothes to wear. Thus, your goal will probably be to not waste time pondering over your options. Again, decisiveness is good.
Situation C. You’ve made a plan on what to do, for example, stick to a diet, exercise on a regular basis, ask someone out on a date, or fire an employee, and now you hesitate whether you should actually do it or not. Once more, it’s good to decisively stick to your plan, unless you have acute reasons to revise it, so that you don’t waste time looking for excuses that erode your self-discipline.
Situation D. You lack an accurate and comprehensive model of the situation that would allow you foresee or approximate the consequences of all possible actions. For example, should you speak up or await further information? Should you commit yourself to a political opinion or keep your mind open? Should you launch a new product or refine it? Should you burn your ships or keep other career options open?
In cases of context D where you don’t know enough about all relevant variables, decisiveness can be bad, namely, if it leads to a premature decision. Here, your prudence tells you that you should be indecisive for at least as long as it takes to estimate the cost of indecisiveness:
- If that cost is higher than that of the worst decision or if, over time, your indecision worsens the outcomes of your options altogether, then it’s better to follow the principle “Don’t make the right decisions, but make your decisions right.”
- On the other hand, if it is less costly to refrain from settling on a definite path of action, you are better advised to put ample deliberation, perhaps also mathematical modeling, before fast decision, even when it feels like hesitation and even when it makes you look weak temporarily.