Hidden threats in decision-making

In the third of a series of articles on the hidden risks in decision-making, Mark and Anna Withers tell us how taking account of decision-making characters of The Judge, The Captain, The Archivist and The Prisoner can improve management skills. 


Despite a wealth of academic and practitioner literature on management and leadership styles and the abundance of leadership and management theories, leadership and management capability is still a major concern for organisations. So what gets in the way?

The 2015 CIPD L&D survey noted that although most companies believe that their people management practices support effective leadership in their organisation (at least to some extent) they found that there was much room for improvement particularly with regard to reward and recognition practices. Our Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework casts a light on why discontent is still so prevalent.

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In the Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework, The Judge in us focuses on information that elicits a positive emotional response and rates this information as more significant. The Judge embodies a cluster of thinking errors that encourage us to make shortcuts in our decisions.

The Judge places significance on what stands out. This might be a person’s reputation, specific information or features of an approach or proposal. The Judge also sheds a light on why the work of employees with an already high reputation within an organisation is less likely to be questioned by others and why their projects or ideas are often not assessed as rigorously because they ride on the back of their good reputation.

The Judge also provides us with an explanation why too often the best specialists in a field (e.g. software developer, engineer, scientist, accountant, etc.) are promoted to management positions even though they lack the necessary people and management skills to fulfil their new role.

As a result, organisations can waste a lot of resources on giving training to people who often have little ability and/or inclination to fulfil the brief of their new roles. In a training context The Judge in us might select training providers who deliver training that is flashy and entertaining. While participants might be duly entertained during the training sessions, often when they get back to their work place they can do little with the training they have received because not enough time and effort has been spent embedding the learning.

Eduardo Salas, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Central Florida who has studied corporate training programmes for more than two decades, maintains that many companies still have a very simplistic view of training. For example, decisions on training are often predetermined by people’s assumptions about what might be needed, rather than being based on research that identifies what is actually needed. In our Hidden

R-I-S-K™ framework the character of The Captain represents a cluster of thinking errors that lead us to select only information that confirms an already predetermined decision. In a training context this might mean that The Captain within us selects information that leads us to favour web-enabled training solutions because the decision makers have already made up their mind that web-enabled training will be cheaper and more effective in solving their training problems.

As a consultancy we are often presented with invitations to tender that give the solution against which we should make our proposals. In discussion with our clients we often learn that little research has actually gone in to defining these requirements. They are simply the clients’ best guess concerning what is required.

The final cluster of thinking errors focuses on how our knowledge and experience can distort our decision-making.

We often come across the following scenario. A client has experienced a successful training intervention in the past and wants to replicate it in a totally new and different context. One organisation we worked with went through a rigorous tendering process to identify a partner for develop leaders.

Ultimately what swung the decision was the positive experience one of the directors had had with a supplier in a previous company. In this instance, the experience wasn’t as powerful in the new organisation and another supplier was commissioned at a later date.

This example highlights how thinking errors embodied in character of The Archivist can easily mislead. These thinking errors in The Archivist lead us to understand a situation on the basis of past experience only. The Archivist in us assumes that just because a current problem looks similar to a past problem the same solution applies. You can deliver the best development programme in the world – just like the one you experienced somewhere else – yet the outcome for participants might be completely different.

For instance, the new organisation may not be ready to receive the training and doesn’t set the conditions so that when participants go back to their job, they have the right supervisory support, the opportunity to practice and the conditions that allow them to apply the skills they have just learned and to motivate them to sustain learning.

Finally The Archivist is closely linked to another set of thinking errors which we have called The Prisoner. The Prisoner in us is triggered when we are faced with a situation that evokes a particular and familiar way of understanding the world. The Prisoner sees the world through the lens of our particular knowledge and experience. The old joke of a scientist, an engineer and an economist stuck on a dessert island without food is a case in point.

When a can of food is washed ashore, the scientist thinks of ways to heat the can; the engineer ways to open the can and the economist just assumes a can opener. L&D professionals are likely to bump up against The Prisoner in their business colleagues. Helping senior sponsors and line managers to think differently about the purpose of L&D is critical in ensuring the all important business alignment. But L&D professionals need also to challenge The Prisoner in themselves by being able to speak effectively the language of business and demonstrate commerciality.

Next week we explore the use of our Hidden R-I-S-K™ framework and the conditions necessary to create a decision-friendly environment in your organisation.



About the authors

Mark Withers and Anna Withers are directors of Mightywater Consulting



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