Find it hard to make decisions? ‘Approach Avoidance Conflict’ might explain why

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

We sat at an outdoor restaurant, looking out over the Atlantic. A cool breeze tempered the Easter sunshine.  The same breeze that makes Portugal a great (biased opinion) destination for Irish people, avoiding the intensive heat common in some other parts of southern Europe.

Castle Construction: Linda and I discreetly observed as 2 local kids (they looked like brother and sister) played on the beach directly below where we were sitting.  They had all the gear for building a sandcastle. One multi-coloured bucket. Two spades. The castle itself was protected by an enormous moat. In a timeless, joyful ritual, they wrestled against the tide to protect the structure. Would it be strong enough to withstand the heavy flow? The girl, a bit younger at about 4 years old, kept up a ferocious running battle as the breakers threatened to destroy their handiwork. She kept running into the surf and running back in an endless interplay. The kids couldn’t make a decision about whether to continue with the construction of the castle itself or work on the moat. They seemed in awe of the force of the waves, but also worried that the tide could overpower them. While it was great fun, the heavy swell also seemed a bit dangerous. Of course,  ever nerve-ending in my body was poised for action.  If anything untoward happened, I was ready to shout, really loud, “someone save those kids!” 

Approach Avoidance Conflict:  In psychology, there is a concept labeled ‘Approach-Avoidance’ conflict.  This occurs when there is a goal or event that has both positive and negative effects or characteristics that make it appealing and unappealing simultaneously. Examples: You are standing in line, close to the top of the roller coaster queue.  Yes, you want the adrenaline rush of powering down those slopes at some enormous G force – but you’re almost equally scared at the prospect of doing this and want to run away (without, of course, appearing to be ‘chicken’). Perhaps the classic approach-avoidance conflict is marriage. Just ask Rory McIlroy.

Decision Dilemmas: Similar tensions occur in a range of decision settings. Those considering leadership roles may desire the ‘promotion’ and the momentary fame (proving to their head teacher who predicted they’d never amount to anything, that he was WRONG!). Yet, they may secretly be scared that the teacher was RIGHT. People who desire to be ‘noticed’ in an organization for the quality of their work are often pulled in the opposite direction – in line with the Japanese maxim: ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’. Executives considering completing an MBA are conflicted with the huge time commitment (“how would this even be possible with my work schedule and 3 small kids?”) versus forgoing the possibility of smearing rocket fuel on their CV. And so on.

When we are conflicted by a major decision we become caught in an Approach-Avoidance conflict. Do I jump at the opportunity and risk failure or do I stay in the safe zone?  Once a decision is made we know that a lot of the tension will disappear. Julia Louise Woodruff said: ‘Out of the strain of the doing, into the peace of the done’. Making a decision, any decision, often relieves the tension. But, if the only criteria you use is speed, you just get to the wrong place faster. So, how can you know that it’s the right decision? Do you go on building that castle or do you concentrate on the moat?

No Magic: If there was a magic formula for making correct decisions, then no poor decisions would ever be made. In fact, nothing would ever be made.Sydney Smith, a Clergyman, said: Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable”. You gather the evidence as systematically as you can. You weigh it up, taking all of the factors into account. Then, you push the button.

Do yourself a favour. Leap out of the ‘I don’t know zone’ and make that call. There are very few things in life that can’t be corrected or won’t be forgiven over time.


PS: Immunity to Change (last week’s blog): Terry Neill reminded me of the following quote by Jacques Chaize: “Le changement est une porte qui s’ouvre de l’interieur”(Change is a door that can only be opened from the inside). Brilliant.  Hey Terry – you’re making me look multilingual! (after 4 years of Portuguese classes, I can now officially order a large beer and a chicken salad sandwich and be understood at least 25% of the time).

PS Lighter Note: Some Old Stuff

You are probably too young to remember the old-time Jewish comedians – Shecky Green, Red Buttons, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman? You may have only heard of them, but their kind of humour – no swear words in their routines – was great in its day. Perhaps a bit corny, but still funny. Here’s a couple of one-liners for your next presentation…

* A car hit an elderly Jewish man. The paramedic says,  “Are you comfortable?” The man says, “I make a good living”

* Someone stole all my credit cards, but I won’t be reporting it. The thief is spending less than my wife.

* My wife and I went to a hotel and we got a waterbed.  She called it the Dead Sea.

* The Doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill, so the doctor gave him another six months.

*The Harvard School of Medicine did a study of why Jewish women like Chinese food so much. The study revealed that the reason for this is because Won Ton spelled backward is Not Now.

* The Doctor called Mrs. Cohen saying, “Mrs. Cohen, your check came back.” Mrs. Cohen replied, “So did my arthritis!” 

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organisation development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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