For Good Decision Making, Focus on Self-Awareness
August 28, 2018
Decisions can be challenging because of practical concerns: limited money, not enough time, bureaucratic red-tape. But they can also be difficult because of some common assumptions – assumptions about ourselves and assumptions about decisions in general. It’s not always comfortable (in fact it rarely is), but if you can carve out time for reflection and get to know the assumptions running the background of your decision making processes, you will be better positioned to make well-formed choices.
In this short article, I want to share some of the most common assumptions I see so often running in the background of the decisions made by my colleagues, clients and myself. Some assumptions are helpful, but some inhibit good decision making. Either way, by getting to know the assumptions influencing our choices (or our indecision) we will be better able to respond well as decisions arise.
Assumption 1: There are good choices and bad choices
It is easy to think that some optional choices are good while others are bad. From this perspective, the work of deciding is uncovering the good, right or correct choices that we ought to make.
But while decisions dohave consequences and should be taken seriously, there will always be some good andsome bad in each option – even if one option appears to us to be perfect. In his book Either/Or, the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, highlights this fact in a rather dark sort of way:
Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.” (Kierkegaard, Either/Or.)
Kierkegaard is not going to win any points for optimism with that quote, but he is on to something. Choices can be anxiety-inducing if we think we must discover ‘the right option’. But if we recognise that regardless of what we choose there will be a day that we wake up and regret our choice, the pressure is off.
Instead of aiming for good or perfect decisions, our aim should wisdom. Wise decisions are based on good reasons, supported by well-formed arguments, and cohere with a broad range of lived experience. To put it another way, we should aim for decisions that ‘cohere with reality’. This approach to questions is in line with how the great biographer of philosophy, Will Durant, articulates the nature of wisdom itself. In The Story of Philosophy he describes wisdom as, “desire coordinated in the light of all experience” (p.xxviii). To choose wisely is to carry out a creative act while respecting the rules of nature and practical reality.
Aiming for wise choices reduces the pressure on us to perform well when it comes to decisions because the aim is not ‘getting it right’ but arriving at appropriately constructed, well-formed decisions.
Assumption 2: Choice is Limiting
The phenomena of FOMO (the fear of mission out) is essentially, the fear that we have made the wrong choice and will miss out on a desired life or hoped for experiences as a result. Because of FOMO it can be tempting to withhold choosing and retain the feeling of freedom associated with having options.
But, while the act of choosing does necessarily involve a rejection – a rejection of Option Aover Option B,of hiring one candidate over another – the rejection of decisions can be liberating. It is through choosing that we construct meaning in our work.
As Mark Manson puts it,
Ultimately, the only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternatives, a narrowing of freedom, a choice of commitment to one place, one belief, or (gulp) one person” (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, p.166).
If choice creates meaning through the rejection of alternatives, then indecision is not a safe option. Failing to decide is the truly risky option. For in sitting on the fence we forfeit our power to choose as we wait for some other factor (a colleague, a deadline, budget constraints) to effectively tip the scales toward one choice or the other. But when the scales are inevitably tipped and the choice is taken out of our hands, the anxiety involved in choosing may dissipate, but so too will the opportunity to make something of our lives and work. In the light of this reality, we ought not fear decisions. We ought to do all we can to move away from indecision.
Assumption 3: Choice is a sole undertaking
The ability and freedom to choose is central to the modern understanding of human liberty. It is, today, core to how we in the west tend to think about ourselves. But it is not quite right to think that the act of making decisions is a purely independent undertaking.
This assumption we might call ‘The George W. Conundrum’. Recall that back in 2006 when discussing the competency of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense George W. Bush said that he sought council but in the end “I am the decider”. The assumption operating here is that making a decision is a solo affair. That how you make decisions boils down to something solely contained in you – your wisdom, decisiveness, leadership etc.
But the reality is more relational: making decisions, especially at work, is often a corporate affair. As the philosopher and sociologist, Renata Salecl, points out in her book, The Tyranny of Choice:
Even if choice appears to be such an individual matter, the way people make choices is essentially linked to the way they forge relationships with others and how they think others see them. Thus it is not so much that people invent forms of self-restraint off their own back as that their choices are very much bound by what they perceive society values as the right choice.” (p. 44)
In practice, the way we make decisions is relational and impacted by the teams and organizational cultures in which we work. If you feel supported, or that the values guiding your decisions align with your colleagues, you will likely find it easier to make decisions.
Think For Yourself
If the assumptions and ideas presented here resonate with you, here are three questions to start applying these ideas to your own work: Do you see the 3 assumptions identified in this article operating in your life or workplace? What other assumptions (either helpful or hindering) do you think impact how people make decisions? What other assumptions might be impacting your decisions?
If you would like to take this work further and uncover more of the assumptions impacting your work, check out Philosophy at Work’s Lateral Thinking workshop. If you’d like to know more, get in touch. We’d love to hear your thoughts.