Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
by Matthew Cramer
“The numerative, rationalist approach to management…seeks detached, analytical justification for all decisions. It is right enough to be dangerously wrong, and it has arguably led us seriously astray.”
—Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.
Don’t be misled by the use of business terms and situations herein. Their counterparts exist in all organized relationships: marriage, family, religious organizations, education, and government. Some translation is required because the lexicon is different in each field; still, the issues in one venue are usually similar to those in another.
Most management tasks are rooted in decisions. Organizational survival is directly related to their quality. Many decisions involve conventional responsibilities such as: vision, plan, objectives, organization, customers, competition, stakeholders, relation-ships, product, communications, financial and talent resources, quality, and so on. Other decisions, when they involve dysfunction in the organization, are especially difficult and crucial.
Years ago, a supervisor in my department had a very talented and smart employee with an excellent work history. This individual had recently been recognized and promoted by us, and enjoyed considerable influence among her peers.
Soon after her promotion, the employee made outrageous demands, found fault with others, and stirred up unrest in the department about company and departmental policies. She became very belligerent; discussion, explanation and persuasion proved unfruitful.
Work progress in her section fell off substantially, and to a lesser degree, in the entire department. The supervisors working for me spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with rumors, slanderous gossip and accusations initiated by this employee.
After many failed attempts to work things out, we faced a key decision: just live with the fallout from her substandard performance — or set her on a formal, pass/fail course, requiring a substantial amount of detailed documentation, that could result in termination if her performance did not rise to an acceptable level.
The decision was not easy. She was talented, very capable and we wanted to save her if at all possible. If her problems could be straightened out, she could make significant contributions to the department and, eventually, be promoted further.
On the other hand, if she remained recalcitrant, she could infect others with her rebellious approach; incurring more lost productivity, and continued overhead effort in supervisory and management attention. Numerous meetings with higher-level management and Human Resources, along with attendant presentations and data gathering, were required to sort through the situation.
Finally, we decided to enlist the employee in the formal company program to improve her unsatisfactory performance. She failed that program and was terminated, but not before she made several appeals to higher level management with their corresponding reviews, meetings and documentation.
Some time later, we learned she was an alcoholic, entered a rehabilitation program after her termination, brought her addiction under control, and married. At last news, she was a happy stay-at-home mom with two children.
The decisions we made to handle the issues with our problem employee were probably as good as they could be, given the information at our disposal. While the dysfunction occurred at work, we had no right to delve into her private life. Still, if we had known about her alcoholism, we could have constructed a different solution that might have saved her job.
The Trademark Of Good Management
I like to shake up the audience in my first session of management training by asserting: “Management doesn’t get paid for doing real work!” Many take umbrage at this, correctly claiming that management tasks involve a good deal of mental work and stress that can leave one exhausted at days end.
Of course, I agree. But management is not the same kind of work as running a drill press, pounding nails, welding, pipe fitting, tin knocking, painting and any of the myriad other tasks that require skilled, physical exertion to produce a product or service.
In days gone by, engineering managers were taught that after accepting a management position, they should use their slide rule only to stir paint. Obviously, this example dates me. Today’s engineers use calculators, and some newly minted engineers may not even know what a slide rule is, much less how to use it. Still, the point remains the same. Management is quite different from “real work”, and it’s important to recognize that, early in a management career.
What managers and leaders are paid for is to make decisions — good decisions. Decisions are easy when all you do is reach down into your gut, select something you like, and issue orders. The decision might even be a good one, at least some of the time.
Making good decisions most of the time is more difficult. Leaders make an estimated 25 decisions a day, many of which have a long-term impact on the organization and its members. If a high percentage of these decisions are faulty, disaster awaits.
The mark of good decisions is they bring life and growth to the organization, its members, and customers (see Life And Growth). Some decisions bring life and growth quickly. But just as we fertilize and prune trees, so they will yield more fruit next season, some good decisions can bring short-term pain, loss, and disappointment; then increase life and growth in the long run.
The term “life and growth” is a broad, over-arching notion. Hard measurements such as costs, sales, profit, budget, employees, contributions, membership, those in the field, new outreaches, and so on, are all helpful indicators of an organization’s life. Nevertheless, it cannot stop there.
Consideration must also be given to the impact these decisions have on the physical, financial and spiritual well being of the customer and the organization’s membership — areas difficult to assess because they can be highly subjective. Even so, decisions that do not consider the broader picture will be truncated and easily defective.
Many secular organizations now consider the life and growth of their customers and members important. They use sophisticated polling and focus-group techniques to assess customer needs, desires and tastes before embarking on product development. Some may evaluate their own members and management based on written input from customers, subordinates and peers on carefully designed questionnaires. These are secular techniques, but they hold promise for any organization.
Deciders Need All the Help They Can Get
When a leader must decide, he is typically confronted with an assortment of facts, risks, benefits, costs and alternatives. An inexperienced leader might be inclined to evaluate what is presented and make a decision based on that information.
Alas, life is hardly ever that simple. It’s possible the information he initially receives could be corrupted by misinformation, omissions, mis-statements, misunderstandings, and even lies — all driven by human need, fear or emotions that exaggerate reality. Corrupted information may also be cloaked in aggression, confusion, and the deceptive, siren song of false benefits.
To sort through this cacophony, managers must probe with questions rooted in three key areas:
- Will the whole truth please stand up?
- What is best for the organization, the customer and our members?
- What does God want?
Assembling a good data set upon which to make a decision is no easy task. For example: some politicians, lawyers and executives give facts that support their case, but not necessarily all the facts they know about an issue. They answer pointed questions indirectly with statements that advocate their position, without giving a direct answer. This is called “Spin”.
Frequently, we don’t have enough data, so we must sniff out and locate missing facts. Sometimes, raw assumptions must be made because important facts are unavailable. Raw assumptions can be treacherous though, because they are easily rooted in false paradigms or personal judgments of an individual or an organization. In these cases, one should assume the best, or at least a neutral assessment, until demonstrated otherwise.
Facts must be accurate, but also need a proper context. We are sworn-in at court to tell “…the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…” Why? When important context is missing, the listener tends to fill in the blanks with assumptions rooted in his own experience.
Many of us want to assume the best; so important negative, annulling or contrary information that could shift a decision one way or another, is likely to be missed. The reverse is also true. People who have a negative, pessimistic, or cynical view of life can miss extenuating or mitigating circumstances unless they weigh the facts in the correct context.
Thus, the manager must deliberately and patiently make sure all the pertinent facts are known, and in their proper context, so alternatives and risks can be correctly analyzed.
Extraneous information must be identified, so it can be ignored. Overrun with too much data, we become confused and distracted from the real issues. In college, my professor for Freshman and Sophomore Physics loved to load problems in his mid-term and semester finals with extraneous data. Few had the guts to ignore interesting facts that were barely related to the problem at hand. We were conditioned in lower grades to assume that all facts stated in a problem must be employed in arriving at the solution, or the answer would be incorrect.
To his glee, most of us had a difficult time adjusting to his methods. His reasoning, explained only after we flunked a test or two, was that it’s important to assess which facts were pertinent in real-life problem solving, and which were not.
Good decisions, then, begin with the facts — accurate, complete information, correctly framed in the larger picture, and unencumbered with extraneous detail.
Separate The Wheat From The Chaff
Discernment is the key to quality decisions. It helps us pick our way through the data, identify areas where key data is missing, ignore unimportant facts, and assess viable alternatives. In both sacred and secular settings, the manager can use three kinds of discernment: Worldly Wisdom, Natural Discernment, and Spiritual Discernment (see The Gift Of Discernment).
Worldly Wisdom is sometimes labeled common sense. While education is helpful, Worldly Wisdom is acquired principally by life experience. This is a pleasant euphemism for the sometimes-unpleasant lessons we learn during the trials, errors, successes and failures in everyday life.
Natural Discernment is our innate, intellectual acuity to assess situations, identify risks, and make judgments as to a favorable course of action. In business, facts are analyzed by addressing operational questions; their counterparts exist in every venue, be it sacred or secular:
- Which areas of the operation are involved?
- What threats or opportunities are presented?
- Who are the principal players?
- What are their agendas?
- Are there other alternatives besides those presented?
- What are the risks and resources associated with each alternative?
- What is the risk of doing nothing?
- How will the various alternatives affect other areas of the operation — customer, resources, product, etc.?
- What opportunities will be lost by investing in one or another of the alternatives?
These and follow-up questions frame the issues clearly. Depending on the leader’s experience and perspective, they often highlight an appropriate course of action. Still, there is a spiritual component to the vicissitudes of life. God is always present. So too is evil, and our damaged human nature (see Embracing Conflict With Hope). Thus, Worldly Wisdom and Natural Discernment, while necessary and helpful, do not give us the very best chance of making a good decision. We must address the spiritual component as well.
Support From The Holy Spirit
Spiritual discernment proceeds from our relationship with God, and the many gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s gifts are used in conjunction with natural affinities and talents already in residence. Too often, Christians waste time and energy asking, “What is my gift?” The assumption being that one or several gifts of the Holy Spirit are assigned to us, and we must identify them so we can cooperate with Our Lord’s plan.
To the contrary, Paul tells us we are a “…temple of the Holy Spirit…” (1Co 6:19 RSV). The New Life we receive at Baptism is the Life of Jesus. It is God who dwells within. The gift is the Triune God Himself and He brings Everyone and all the gifts with Him; in other words, “the complete set”.
Thus, God intends us to use whatever combination of His gifts He prompts us to use in any particular situation. It could be a single gift this time, or many for the rest of our lives. We might employ wisdom one time, a prophetic or intuitive sense another, and so on.
Decisions typically involve three of the Spiritual Gifts (see The Gift Of Discernment):
- Knowledge, which helps us see deeper into the situation and involved parties as we probe for causes, emotional drivers, agendas, etc.
- Wisdom, which helps us see possible outcomes, and God’s action in the situation and the individuals involved.
- Discernment of Spirits, which helps us recognize what part Evil is playing in the situation.
Our use of spiritual gifts depends in large measure on our relationship with God. We pursue Him through prayer, praise, petition, worship, thanksgiving, sacrament, scripture, education, mentoring, and spiritual reading.
It’s my experience that God develops with each of us a unique mark or signal that identifies His leadings. Over time, through trial and error, our relationship with Him deepens, and we learn to recognize His promptings. This familiarity with “His voice” is a key factor in our ability to hear Him and cooperate with His promptings.
Some Helpful Hints
It is foolish to make decisions without using all three types of discernment. If Worldly Wisdom and Natural Discernment is ignored, the leader makes a spiritualized “hip-shot”. Critical information and lessons learned, waiting to shed light on the situation, can be overlooked, and deliberate analysis ignored.
Conversely, if Spiritual Discernment is not used, deeper influences that can cause the objective picture to shift into better light and reveal more of the truth will remain hidden.
A helpful question to ask is: “Will this contemplated solution bring life, or death?” All things that are good exist in God who is their source. Creativity and life are hallmarks of God’s action. We can assume that God is at work if these hallmarks are evident, or clearly on the horizon. If organizational life is drained away, we can assume that fallen humanity or evil is at work (see Life And Growth).
This rule of thumb has limits because the consequences of some issues are complex. Try applying the “life/death” question to the “Just War” issue and you will see what I mean. Nevertheless, the “life/death” question is particularly helpful in many, every-day discernment efforts where a quick-call is required.
Significant research has enabled the secular to identify effective processes for assessing risk, and evaluating alternatives to arrive at a good decision. These processes are supported by a number of financial tools that help us assign values to risk and reward, and rank alternatives. They can be found in most Financial Management textbooks.
Both sacred and secular leaders would be foolish indeed to ignore these secular tools. They are well worth the time it takes to learn and use them. In their zeal, however, many leaders use these tools too rigidly — so much so, that Peters and Waterman were prompted to make the remark quoted at the beginning.
The Final Step
All said and done, the leader must make a choice. Decisions are the result of choices; and choices are based on judgments. Having carefully evaluated all the data, we must choose which alternative — in our judgment — promises the best overall result for the organization, its customers, members, and ministries.
Sometimes, Worldly Wisdom and Natural Discernment provide clear direction. Many times, Spiritual Discernment reveals other factors that can change what seems to be the obvious decision. Other times, analysis of the alternatives reveals no clear choice at all.
In the final analysis, the decisions (choices) we make are intensely personal. The decision-maker must look within himself to make the call. When we do, we bring our values and paradigms into play — intentionally or not.
If our value set is dominated by secular influences — power, popularity and financial considerations will significantly influence our decisions. As we allow the New Life to transform us (see Embracing Conflict With Hope), our decisions will reveal more self-sacrificial, life-giving motivations that exhibit the character of Jesus at work.
Having made our choice, the final step is a “sanity check” — a gauntlet through which to pass the decision before giving orders. As the saying goes: It’s too easy for us to “drink our own bath water”. Here are some questions we can use for the sanity check:
- Has the decision has been guided by the Holy Spirit?
- Will the decision bring life and growth to the organization, its products (ministries), members and customers?
- Are the doors of opportunity open?
- Is a trusted advisory group, mentor, pastor, or friend in significant disagreement?
- Does the decision conflict with Scripture and Church teaching?
- Does the decision conflict with the desire of your heart?
- Are you at peace with the decision?
Applying these tests will not guarantee our decisions are correct; there is always more to learn about Our Lord’s mark in our lives, more to learn about dying to self, and more to learn about the agendas and weaknesses of others. Still, if our decision survives the tests above, we can take comfort we’re on much better ground than our emotions and temptations would have us be.