The 4 Rs for making good decisions

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In many ways, decision making is the epitome of a leader’s job. It is also the greatest driver of performance in business and in life. Researchers estimate that we make nearly 35,000 decisions every day. Therefore, it is essential that leaders adopt a decision-making process that reliably results in sound decisions.

The need for moral and emotional intelligence

While logic plays a role in making good decisions, optimal decision making goes beyond logic. It requires moral and emotional intelligence. Through our work with hundreds of leaders, we’ve found that those who consistently make good decisions use their moral and emotional competence For:

  • Increase self-awareness of what they were experiencing (thoughts, feelings, and actions) when faced with a difficult situation.
  • Shift decision-making drivers from external stimuli, such as fear-inducing circumstances, to internal stimuli, such as principles and values.
  • Adopt the most realistic, positive and productive perspective on the current situation.

These principles form the basis of the 4 Rs, a decision-making model that helps people reliably activate their moral and emotional skills to make effective, values-based decisions.

The 4 Rs make all the difference in good decisions

Every positive decision made by a leader involves four steps:

  1. Acknowledge what you and others are going through.
  2. Think about the big picture, principles and values.
  3. Reframe your thinking if necessary.
  4. Respond by deciding to do something – or not.

One of the most powerful features of the 4Rs process is that it interrupts your brain’s default responses to external situations. Think of this effect as pressing the pause button on your brain’s automatic program for decision-making. You may not always be able to keep your brain from unleashing an emotional storm when faced with a significant leadership challenge. But you can, by practicing the 4 Rs, prevent your emotions from distracting your rational thinking. And, thanks to the plasticity of the brain, when you press the play button again, everything you did during the break begins to develop new mental pathways that improve your response the next time you make a decision.


Recognition primarily depends on self-awareness, the emotional competence that research shows has the greatest positive impact on leadership performance. Recognize includes:

  • Acknowledge what is happening to you.
  • Recognize what is happening to those around you.
  • Recognize what excites you and those around you.

Recognition is the critical first step in which you can probe your own experiential triangle of thoughts, feelings, and actions, and if needed, gather information about the experiential triangles of those you wish to influence, such as your teams or families. . By consistently practicing recognition, you will move from a reflective responder to a reflective recognizer.


The second R, reflection, is the process of focusing on what matters most to you. The main purpose of reflection is to shift the elements that influence your decisions and actions from external stimuli to internal stimuli. External stimuli can include a wide range of frightening or upsetting situations, such as having to fire a group of employees, finding out your teen is a drug addict, or being reprimanded for a personal ethical breach. Internal stimuli come from within you. The three main sources of internal stimuli are:

  • The big picture of your life
  • Principles
  • Values

When you think about the big picture, you ask yourself:

  • Overall, what do I want this decision to mean, not just in this case, but in my lifetime?
  • What is the impact of my leadership over the long term?
  • How do I want to present myself in life and as a leader?

When you think about the principles, you ask yourself:

  • What principles, for example, integrity, accountability, compassion, and forgiveness, do I most need to demonstrate when responding to this situation?
  • OWhat values ​​are most important to me when deciding how to respond to this situation?

Other questions to consider during the reflection phase include:

  • How does this situation affect my ability to achieve my most important leadership goals?
  • What mental biases might color my understanding of the situation and how might they influence a potential decision?

On the surface, the 4 Rs can look like an orderly, step-by-step process. In reality, the 4 Rs come and go throughout the decision-making process. Recognition and reflection often seem to occur simultaneously. Once you make the conscious choice to pause to recognize your experiential triangle, things move very quickly. As you recognize thoughts, feelings, and actions, you’ll likely find that you also start thinking about what matters most to you. This is a good thing, because the sooner you can enter a calm, thoughtful state, the less likely you are to make a premature and ill-considered decision.


The third R, reframing, starts with taking the results of your thoughts and determining whether or not you need to change the way you interpret the factors affecting a required decision. More often than not, the reflection results in the realization that you need to change the way you think about the situation.

Reframing contributes to effective decisions even if you find that you don’t need to change your perspective on the current situation. Indeed, this third R acts as a spotlight on the most effective option or options for action, inspired by the two previous Rs. Whether you’re literally reframing a situation (as in most cases) or validating your existing framework (occasionally), the Third R’s thoughtful process helps ensure that the decision you ultimately make is a sound one.

Questions to consider when reframing:

  • How has the reflection changed my way of thinking about this situation?
  • Should I change my way of thinking about this situation or not?
  • What are the different choices available to me if I think about this situation in a new way?

Just as recognition leads to reflection, reflection seems to naturally lead to reframing. And just as the first two Rs may have danced together in your mind, reflection and reframing can come and go in tandem.

As you progress through the cropping phase, you may feel a sense of relief, as if you can breathe easier. This is because reframing, while a cognitive process, is also emotionally freeing. When we reframe, we can see more possible choices. We feel lighter. Whether or not we fundamentally change our framework, we can be confident that the decision we are about to make is measured and values-based. Armed with a realistic and positive framework, we can now make a wise decision.


The fourth R, answering, may seem like the easiest of the 4 Rs to master. In its simplest form, responding is making a decision. It is about doing something or choosing not to do something.

Questions you may want to ask before making a final decision include:

  • Should I take a particular action or not?
  • For every action I might take, what might be the unintended consequences?

It’s tempting to jump to a decision as soon as you’ve gone through the first three R’s. Sometimes, as soon as you’ve reframed your situation, you can make a smart decision. At other times, you may feel uncertain about your decision and may need to revisit an earlier phase of the 4Rs process. For example, you may need to reflect further on whether you have fully considered your values. Or you may need to be more creative in reframing your situation to open up the most productive choices of how to proceed.

Finally, having gone through the first three Rs, you can now take advantage of these conventional decision-making models, applying quantitative methods to identify and evaluate options when leadership or organizational challenges are complex and would benefit from data science applications.

However, going back to those 35,000 decisions that fill up every day, it’s a safe bet that most of your choices as a leader and as a human being don’t require sophisticated analytical tools. The decision-making differentiators that really make a difference are the moral and emotional skills at the heart of the 4Rs decision-making model.

Doug Lennick and Chuck Wachendorfer are co-authors of “Don’t wait for someone else to fix it.” Lennick, an expert in the science of human behavior, is the founding CEO of think2perform, a high performance leadership development firm serving organizations large and small in a variety of industries. Wachendorfer is the President of Distribution for Think2perform and as a leadership development professional has worked with clients including American Express, Wells Fargo, Comerica Bank, TD Wealth of Canada, Charles Schwab and others.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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