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Should Leaders Make Quick Decisions?

Fast decision-making can make a leader seem more (or less) trustworthy.

Key points

  • People often judge leaders based on how they make important decisions.
  • Decisions may be judged differently if they are made quickly (vs. slowly).
  • Leaders are often seen as more trustworthy when they are fast to include others, but less trustworthy when they are fast to exclude others.

We judge leaders based on the choices that they make, and on how they make choices.

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Decision speed shapes how we judge leaders
Source: 'anand-raghu-337334/Pexels'

When people observe others’ decisions, they use cues (pieces of information) to understand how and why decisions were made. Behavioral science research suggests that decision speed—whether a choice is made quickly or slowly—is one of the most important cues people use to judge decisions. For example, most people would rather work for a company that offers them a job quickly, as opposed to a company that takes more time to reach a final decision. New research suggests that decision time also influences how people react to the decisions of leaders.

In a recent paper, led by Dr. Philippe van de Calsyede, we studied how people respond to leaders who make quick (vs. slow) decisions (van de Calseyde et al., 2021). Are leaders who make quick decisions seen as more trustworthy and honest than leaders who make slow decisions? Or do people prefer leaders who take their time?

We found that the effects of decision speed depend on the choices that leaders make. When leaders choose to include (or trust) others, they are seen as more trustworthy and honest if they make their decisions quickly. But when leaders choose to distrust (or exclude) others, they are seen as less trustworthy and honesty when they decide quickly. In other words, fast decisions make good decisions seem better and harmful decisions seem worse.

Fast Decisions and Extreme Consequences

In our studies, we asked leaders to make decisions about whether to include (or exclude) others in decisions about how to allocate cash bonuses. Leaders could either make the decisions on their own, or include other participants in the decision-making process. Then, we asked a separate group of participants to judge these leaders in terms of their trustworthiness, honesty, and morality. Importantly, we gave judges information about whether the leaders included (vs. excluded) others, and whether they made their decisions quickly (vs. slowly).

First, we found that leaders who included others were seen as much more trustworthy than leaders who excluded others. This is no big surprise. People like leaders who trust others and include others in decision-making processes.

At the same time, decision speed also predicted how people judged the choices of leaders.

Leaders who included others quickly were seen as more trustworthy than leaders who were slow to include others. The opposite was true for leaders who excluded others. Leaders who were slow to exclude others were seen as more trustworthy than leaders who were fast to exclude others. In other words, good decisions seemed better when they were made quickly, and bad decision seemed worse.

Critically, speed also influenced whether participants were willing to cooperate with leaders. People were more willing to cooperate with leaders who were quick (vs. slow) to include others, and leaders who were slow (vs. fast) to exclude others.

Speed Reveals Certainty

Why does decision speed influence how we judge others? In our studies, we found that people believed that leaders who decided quickly were more certain about their choices than leaders who decided slowly. When someone takes a long time to decide, this makes them seem conflicted and doubtful about their choice.

This signal of conflict can be a good or a bad thing depending on the situation. Decisions that will lead to positive reactions (deciding to hire or promote an employee) are better made quickly. But unpopular decisions are better made slowly. Excluding someone from a team can be a bad experience and making that decision too quickly can make the bad experience seem even worse.

For leaders, slow responses can undermine the positive impact of inclusive decision-making, or soften the consequences of unpopular decisions.

References

Van de Calseyde, P. P., Evans, A. M., & Demerouti, E. (2021). Leader decision speed as a signal of honesty. The Leadership Quarterly, 32(2), 101442.

Van de Calseyde, P. P., Keren, G., & Zeelenberg, M. (2014). Decision time as information in judgment and choice. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 125(2), 113-122.

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