I had a conversation today with a coworker. We were discussing the “Medicare for All” movement. She’s younger than me but has had very significant health care issues. She’s also lived for extended periods of her life in parts of the world where socialized medical care is simply an accepted reality of life. I was very curious how these experiences would have colored her perspectives. She was fairly even keel on the pros and cons of the differing health care options of a private approach versus a single payer government run system. Where she did have unexpected insight actually came from her research work that she had to complete for one of her advanced degrees.
Her research has shown that the quality of a modern socialized health care system really goes all the way back to the elements of when and where the system originated from. This is true even if the system originated several decades earlier. You may ask why this matters in an article on decision making? The answer has to do with the fundamental nature of decision making.
Decision making is not a one and done event. Most decision making is iterative in nature. Someone has to make a decision, and that decision has implications on future decisions. This is why some socialized healthcare systems are bad, and others are good. Some systems were built, through uncounted decisions, on a complex social and governmental foundation that was hundreds of years old, and others were built fresh from the ground up after World War Two as destroyed nations rebuilt their entire socio-economic infrastructure for the modern era.
Decision making when it comes to things like healthcare systems are highly complex. Not only is the subject matter complex, the decision making apparatus and number of people influencing it is almost infinite in scope. Thankfully not all decision making in our life is this complex. It’s still a complicated enough topic that it warrants some reflection. Too many people live their lives by making decisions based upon what is right there in front of them. Very few think of it as a process or a journey. To this end I thought a quick review of decision making and decision makers was in order. Most importantly, I want to offer some advice on how to deal with the different types of decision makers. There is no single decision in your life made by others that can be guaranteed to go your way. But I believe that over time, and with understanding of the decision making structure, professionals can slowly and carefully be more effective with decision makers to their own benefit. Going back to the journey analogy, you can’t control every turn if it’s made by someone else, but the general direction can definitely be influenced.
Who are decision makers?
The first thing to consider is who is making the decision. There are really a bunch of different types of decision makers. For the purposes of this narrative, I’m going to concentrate on decision makers in the professional world. That being said much of what I will comment on has a parallel in our private lives. The first type of decision maker, the one we are all familiar with at work, is the boss. I guess a more correct way of describing it would be: the autocratic leader who is empowered to make decisions of consequence. This type of decision maker is pretty simple to figure out. Whatever the priorities of the boss are, those generally will align with the decisions being made. The one caveat with this type of autocratic decision maker is if they are irrational. I said that many people make decisions based upon what is directly in front of them, and the autocratic decision maker can fall into this trap. This makes things really difficult for the professional. They never know what their boss is going to do. I do believe that over time, a long time, a pattern will emerge in the chaos of their decision making. The question really becomes the unknown influencers on the boss’s decision making process. they could be making decisions based upon off-hand comments by organizational VIPs. If you’re not there to hear the comment, then a week later when your boss makes a decision based off of that comment, it will seem completely irrational. If this is the kind of boss you have, it’s a bad sign, and maybe a boss you need to get away from.
There are other types of decision makers. A type of decision maker that looks and feels like a boss, but isn’t a boss, is the bureaucrat. You find these in large organizations or government institutions. Rather than think of them like bosses, it’s probably better to consider them more like umpires. They make calls when it comes to how to implement laws, rules, and policy. Technically the people who wrote the laws are those who made the decision even if it was at a different time and place. The umpire decision maker just makes the call if the request or initiative is allowable. A true bureaucrat doesn’t have a dog in the fight. They are almost passive and have a strong grasp on what’s allowable and what’s not. They tend to be conservative because their role is not to make something happen, it’s just make sure the laws are followed. That is the key with the bureaucrat, understand the laws and norms, and understand the preference of the bureaucrat, the leaning per se, and you know how to deal with them. They will not break the law, but they may interpret it a little bit differently.
Group decision making is one of the hardest types of decision-making to comprehend. Fortunately, groups, like human beings, have personalities. Once you know the personality of the group or committee, then you can, sort of, predict what types of decision-making they are going to make over time. This can get tricky as when the members of the group change, so does it’s personality. If you have enough people change, and there’s not a strong and enduring culture within the group, then the decision making out of that group can swing wildly. Most people are familiar with the United States House of Representatives. The House is the consummate example of this. The rhetoric, decision-making, and priorities of the house have a tendency to change every two years depending upon the whims of the electorate.
It’s not all congressional decision making, we see this type of thing in school boards, work committees, and any other group. Influencing this type of decision making is pretty easy. All you have to do is align your proposals to the priority of the group. Just never forget that no matter if you have a committee of 3 or of 300 after a short time politics gets involved. It’s just human nature. That’s why, with committees especially, the best solution is the long-term view.
The latest trend in decision making is to let the computers make the decisions. I’ve discussed this before, in my article on algorithmic management. This type of decision making is akin to a bureaucrat on steroids. There is zero emotion, and zero consideration for the human element or for morality of any sort. All decision making is made based upon predetermined rules. It didn’t matter as much when the decision was a simple function like automatically ordering a restock when the register system reported that the last of an item was sold. It gets a bit more involved when we move into the world of mid-level intelligence decision making. We see it with Ubers use of algorithmic management to make fleet deployment decisions or with customer service chat bots on websites or voice prompt systems.
I feel like the piece of this that is most disturbing is the fact that programmers are doing everything in their power to make the computer seem like a human beings. It’s gotten so bad that the developer will insert filler words, sometimes referred to as hesitation markers, into response routines to make the robots seem more human. We would know this as pauses in speech or words such as um, uh, er, ah, like, okay, right, and you know. It definitely makes people feel more comfortable with the interactions, but it also falsely offers the human unspoken potential for flexibility and humanity in the decision making. The most important element in dealing with this type of decision making construct is to understand what you are dealing with. It’s insidious to make a computer seem so human. As this type of obfuscation gets ever more complex, humans will have to get much more savvy at detecting the robot they are dealing with and setting their expectations accordingly.
Dealing with the Decision Makers
We are human beings, that means we are emotional. Sometimes we let our emotions get in the way. This is a problem the robots don’t have. These emotions can impair our ability to deal with decision makers. Oftentimes our ability to deal with them, or our frustrations in dealing with their decisions, is a direct reflection of the fact that we disagree with the decisions being made. There’s really only two reasons why we would disagree with the decision maker, one would be a difference of priority, the other is a lack of information.
This is aggravated by the fact that we are professionals. Through training and enculturation we are led to believe that we are qualified to make the decisions that are being made around us. It would truly be much easier if we didn’t have the drive or training to make decisions. Then we would just go with the flow and not let it cause us any bother. We could be one of those folks who say “No problem, you’re the boss-man” when someone decides for us what we should be doing. Our training isn’t the challenge, or it’s not the biggest challenge. The biggest issue is enculturation. What I mean by this is many organizations say they empower their people to make decisions. The reality is that this is not the case, at least not broadly and definitely not with highly impactful decisions. Most decision-making that is allocated to the individual contributor is typically minimal at best. As an example retail professionals could be empowered to offer up to 5% off a retail item. “Up to” is the keyword there, they can’t go further even if the margins allow for profitability with much greater discounts.
Another example comes from banking. A bank branch manager may be able to offer a refund of an automated charge on an account. But the system won’t allow the bank manager to refund all overdraft fees. The bank manager may only get the 5 or 10 a day that the system will allow them to do. This is true even if the fees are in opposition to the expressed values of the bank. In these cases,an emotional response will lead to frustration. The logical response will not. Looking at the bank branch manager, they may get frustrated at their inability to deliver services according to the stated values of the bank. This stated value, say one of customer satisfaction above all else, is different than the practical or real world value. The real world value is profitability above customer satisfaction. Looking at these rules and limitations, a logical person would be able to look at their customers square in the eye and say “I know what it says on the wall over there on our value statement, but the reality is our profitability is more important than your satisfaction or personal financial well-being.”
So the first rule of dealing with decision makers, is to not be emotional. Be logical and realistic based upon the outcomes of the decisions that are continually being made. If profitability is the primary decision-making incentive, wrapped in a pretty bow of customer satisfaction, then interacting with that organization’s decision makers should be done with those considerations in mind. Don’t believe what they say, believe what they do.
Decision making, practical decision making, is based upon values. Organizations of any size, at least the good ones, try to have some sort of spoken value system. The bad ones also have a value system, but it’s communicated poorly or not at all. In the worst organizations, the ones like the bank with the confiscatory bank fees, the value system is a complete lie. The real unforgivable sin in these organizations is economic loss. This is the second rule, which is closely tied to the first rule of limiting emotion, is to truly understand the values inherent in decision making.
The third rule, the biggest rule, is the one I cited at the beginning of this article, is to think long term in dealing with decision makers. In the bank example, the branch manager may want to be honest with their customers. They may want to explain that the Bank is focused on profitability and they are limited in their ability to make decisions no matter what the customer has been led to believe. The branch manager then may offer a workaround. They may also continuously, over the course of their career, encourage or champion best practices that increase customer satisfaction (the stated value) without hindering profitability too greatly at each step (the real value). Depending upon how they position their points with the decision makers they are engaged with, they may actually be able to make some progress over time in getting closer to whatever value the bank manger really wishes to champion, which if they are an individual contributor, is most likely the one that will benefit the customer the most.
But what if these rules in dealing with decision makers don’t work for you? The previous example assumes what to do when there is some decision making power and some influence on the part of the professional individual contributor. But there are organizations that do not want the professionals to make any decisions. You are expected to be more of a robot than the chat-bots or server based software that makes the logistics decisions. The question is what to do then? I just talked about areas where you can slowly grow your decision making power but for many this isn’t enough. Not having self determination, or having it limited in your day to day activities can be extremely frustrating for someone who is intelligent enough to make good decisions on their own. One option, rarely successful statistically, is to create your own organization. Entrepreneurship is definitely a way to have nearly complete decision making power. Unfortunately we live in an expensive, complex and highly competitive world and it’s very difficult to be successful with a start up. Another option is to keep moving around in your career in ways that allow more self determination. It could be up the chain, or into another organization or industry entirely.
No matter if you are sticking around in a single organization or bouncing around to different employers. In the end it’s a long game. Don’t let yourself get defeated on a decision by decision basis. It’s like the politics I cited at the beginning of this article. If you get too close to any particular vote or decision it’s an emotional roller coaster, but if you look at the long term, you’ll see trends and maybe even get to influence them, at least the ones made by people. For influence with the next wave of decision makers, maybe we should all go learn how to program.