Decision Making Dilemmas
Someone considerably younger asked me earnestly, "What is the basis for your personal and professional decisions? Have these changed as your life and work progressed? How do you know you need to change your framework for decision making?"
There are a number of social science theories devoted to this topic, but I am synthesizing my personal tools and experiences to address these important questions. I offer my personal perspective in this article and shall share a few examples from different cultural contexts.
My personal foundation for making decisions of consequence involves first establishing who will be affected by my decision: My immediate family/loved ones? My work colleagues? My friends? My future employer(s)? My community?
Most important, is if the decision I make meets my personal criteria of being:
4) consequential (having few or no harmful effects I can foresee)
Reaching an actual decision, even for assigning simple tasks such as "who cleans the training hall" may be arrived at very differently in the East, than in the West. In societies where the 'communal' interest is paramount, and where taking individual initiative or asking questions is discouraged; more steps in decision making may be involved. It may be necessary to all agree before a 'final decision' is implemented. Consensus decisions historically take more time.
Time is a crucial factor in decision making, especially in a work situation. Yet, time too, is assessed and valued differently in different cultures and societies. 'Later' in some countries can mean the same day, in others the same month. In Australia the phrase "back in a tic" could mean minutes, hours or days. In Italy for example, a “moment” can be an expansion of time that cannot be predicted.
While honesty and truth are considered important and even integral (in theory anyway) in American society, "saving face" and "creating harmony" are often the primary concerns in other societies. People from other cultures often don't consider omitting or "changing" the facts to be deceitful in the same way western societies do.
People selling a service or product will often "tell you what you what to hear as a customer/client" even if they know it’s not true. Consider the pharmaceutical companies and medical providers who told you last year the new “vaccines are safe and effective”.
Do you decide to reveal the truth? A challenging dilemma, especially if you are in a position where you are responsible for others and not just yourself. For instance: needing accurate information, such as when electricity will be available in sub zero weather-rather than reporting that it will not be available for at least 48 hours. People will tell you…'soon' but if you knew it would be at least another 48 hours, you could plan accordingly with your team rather than "hope" the electricity will come back on in a few hours…you get the idea. If you have been told by someone over you, in authority, do you follow their directions even if doing so jeopardizes the health and safety of your team and others?
If you don’t have your own "code" yet, I urge you to define and refine one. It will serve as a compass for the more difficult and emotionally laden decisions. You can also reflect if you’ve made decisions which violated your own "code" .
Do you include others in your decision making by seeking out information from people who may have conflicting points of view or minimal investment in the outcome? I found working in the Middle East, especially in both Israel and Iraq, everyone seemed to have an opinion on any publicly announced problem even if they only overheard a discussion concerning a possible decision.
Whereas in Malaysia or China, people were reticent about jumping into a discussion unless asked and even then, they would often defer to my point of view or decision as part of being polite. Or they would remain silent. I would also remain silent in certain countries (Siberia, Russia is one example) if I didn't agree. I adjusted my conduct once I perceived the unwritten codes of conduct required decisions were based on power, and not cooperation or even reason.
When expertise and skills are needed in urgent situations in order to make an "informed decision" it is best to be realistic about your own abilities, experience, bias and training. I have changed my approach to urgent decision making depending on the situation I’m confronted with. I often held back in the past, even in an emergency/crisis, and didn't express a dissenting viewpoint for fear of being "dismissed" or being held responsible if my decision resulted in more serious consequences. My advice is to continually review your personal code in the context of the situation you are confronted with. If you have the skills and information which will influence the decision, you need to speak up before a decision is finalized.
There is an element of "gut feeling" and even "Divine guidance" in life and death situations. Decision making is often done within nanoseconds. You may need to make a decision without all the information required, because of timing.
In family situations, I would bury my code at times...for the sake of "peace". Never a wise long-term compromise. Now, with more experience, I am able to discern (most of the time) if I should press forward.
As I get older I worry less what people will think, and try do make a decision based on what I know and feel is appropriate and essential for the situation. I am more mentally prepared to accept the consequences, including being “unpopular” or scorned for a decision I concluded was the “right” one at the time.
Knowing the personnel involved in making decisions which you may have to implement-is a vital component to following on with those decisions which affect you and others. Did this person have all the information necessary to make this decision? Do the decision makers have known biases? Are the supervisors passing on a decision designed to make them look good, but which will have a deleterious effect soon after on the rest of the team? Is your supervisor forced to carry out a decision they don’t agree with? These are all dilemmas you need to be aware of before complying.
When you are responsible for a number of others, decision making dilemmas and consequences increase exponentially. Case in point, the dilemma of building a protective barrier, fence or wall around your own home, school, clinic - let alone along an entire border, will directly impact your immediate finances, access and security.
As a point of reference, even at a martial arts training center in Henan where I resided, they built surrounding walls, installed electronic surveillance cameras, guards and an electrified gate 24/7. This is up in the hills away from any major routes or towns. Although there were many capable martial artists inside, they felt their own people and property were precious enough to invest in additional material protection. They remember attacks throughout their history and use lessons from the past to inform their decisions to secure their present boundaries to ensure their future.
The decisions you make today will impact you and others...tomorrow. We are all human beings and therefore we all make mistakes. But as professionals, there are no excuses for the decisions we have made.