We make decisions on a daily basis, from something as innocent as figuring out what to have for lunch to deciding on whether to go for that last bid or not in a property auction. In business settings, sub-optimal decision making can lead to bad experiences for millions of users, lost of customers and revenue, or even the downfall of companies. In order to reduce preventable missteps, companies introduce good governance and typically look to their leaders and managers for sound decision making. This is complemented with a range of other measures such as the use of hypothesis driven approach to solve problems, the use of inceptions to kick off project with the proper stakeholders and training on critical thinking for employees.
It is worth emphasising at this stage that the core of the matter is not about avoiding mistakes at all cost or criticising incidents after the fact. Rather, sound decision making is about preventing the kind of undesirable outcomes that would have been picked up and avoided through (1) experience and subject matter expertise, (2) collective intelligence and (3) structured thinking. The reality however can be harsh. As much as we strive for sound decision making, some times, as they put it, s**t happens. I have the privilege of being very close to some of these decisions. A closer look reveals a thing I call unholy trinity that prevented sound decision making, instead of factors which are beyond one’s control.
The unholy trinity in our context refers to the three characteristics of a person or a group of people who are involved in decision making that, knowingly or not, promote for suboptimal paths to be pursued. The presence of individuals exercising these traits during decision making greatly diminishes the effectiveness of the check and balance measures mentioned briefly above. This does not only lead to optimal solutions being missed, the presence of individuals with these traits in the governance structure will ensure that the business continues investing in less than ideal approaches. We will discuss these traits.
I am better than anyone else
The first tell-tale sign is an elitist or prejudiced mindset. This often manifest as poor judge of talent, the stifling or ridiculing of differing views and the constant moving of goal posts. The people who think in such a way have distorted views of the true capabilities, expertise and experience of other individuals. In their heads, they translate differing opinions and lived experiences into knowledge gaps and character flaws. An example of how this might play out would be, during an inception or planning, only the stakeholders who live up to the elitist’s expectations are invited. This as a result undermines the usefulness of these processes which are meant to promote sound decision making.
In other scenarios where opinions are expressed that do not quite align with the people with such a mindset, these perspectives are quickly dismissed. The confirmation bias in these people means that they only listen to things which confirm their misconceptions. Various tactics such as word salad, ad hominem arguments, projection and gaslighting are used to confuse and discredit the individuals who expressed the views. Instead of giving different views due consideration, the elitists also tend to generalise everything they hear and discount the nuances by using comments such as “Someone I know has tried that before and it doesn’t work“.
Another point worth mentioning is that these elitists can never be pleased. This makes engaging in healthy debates with them difficult, if not impossible. Even after exhaustive evidence has been put forth to validate an argument, they set up another expectation or demand for more proof, something known as moving the goal post. They deal with this in their heads by plainly ignoring the facts that make them uncomfortable, i.e., the ostrich effect. This goes back to the true intent of the elitists, which is to continue to discount opposing views and pull others down.
The idea is mine and it is going to work
The second sign is the making of an approach to a problem or the outcome of a decision personal. It is important that we draw a distinction between being passionate about producing great outcomes versus making something personal. There is no question that the people involved in the decision making need to have conviction about what’s being decided. Making something personal, however, brings ego and hubris into the decision making process. This crosses the line from just focusing on what’s best for the business to a decision or a path that favours an individual’s reputation or vested interest.
Now that deciding on a path or whether to continue to pursue a path has become personal, various biases are introduced into decision making processes along the way. Optimism bias is an obvious one where these people now refuses to believe that ‘their’ chosen paths have even the slightest chance of failure. This distorts the risk profile of the entire range of options available during decision making, which sets a dangerous precedent. In the event that cracks start to show in the solution, the emotionally invested individuals will take the matter personally. Instead of assessing the problems with the current approach objectively and to reconsider the options if required, these people will start rationalising.
Rationalisation is a tactic that is used to defend the increasingly indefensible. An example would be a manager who now has his reputation on the line, responding to complaints from users about a solution that he has championed for with “They are not using our product in the right way” or “Our product is not designed for them“. At this stage, these people will constantly make up excuses to keep a lid on the actual flaws in the decision that they steered the business towards.
You will listen to me or else
It begins with an elitist or a group of them believing in an approach to a problem so strongly despite having very little expertise and experience in the matter. Using a bunch of tactics, alternative approaches are discredited and subdued. Over time, the same people become more and more invested, to the point of staking one’s reputation on the approach, wittingly or not. Due to the suboptimal decision to begin with, issues start to emerge. These people rely on unfounded optimism and other tactics to continue pushing the initiative along. There will come a time when other leaders and managers begin questioning.
At this point, a dangerous bias rears its ugly head, the sunk-cost fallacy. The use of the position of influence or power to initially muster the entire business behind the approach is repeated again. Due to the emotional and financial investments that have already been put into the solution, the elitists will play this card, coupled with their easy access to the necessary decision makers, to convince the business to see it right through to the end.
Alternatively, in the scenario that the business decides to cut the loses there and then, they will use everything in their power to avoid being held accountable for the bad decision making in the first place. These people will use the blame shifting tactic and statements such as “If you know that the approach doesn’t work from the very beginning, why didn’t you raise that with the steering committee“.
In order to rebut these blame shifting statements, we do not have to look far beyond the few people exhibiting the unholy trinity traits.