A Fundamental Decision Making Flaw in Public Officials

Norman Jacknis
Aug 16, 2016 · 4 min read

As we face another Presidential election and think about the candidates operating in the well-known bubble of the White House, I thought it worth updating and reposting a piece from four years ago, a month before the last election.

The question I asked: Are our public leaders flawed because they were selected as public leaders?

Just a few weeks ago, an article in Fortune reminded me of this question and the phenomenon that answers the question. Its author, Rita Gunther McGrath, noted that:

“In almost every disaster, you find the leaders based their decision-making on assumptions… A fundamental flaw in most governmental policy-making is that those making the deals and decisions think they are operating with facts. The reality is that they are operating instead with assumptions, many deeply held, about what causes what to happen. A policy is really a statement of assumed causality, and the law of unintended consequences is ever-present.”

The downside of a chief executive’s view of reality — i.e., assumptions — is made worse by the typical over-confidence such positions encourage.

The popular title and sub-title of the paper by Professor Kelly E. See, then of NYU, and three other academic researchers on organizational behavior, which I originally cited, make the point: “The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: Overflowing with confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.

Some of their key findings:

“This paper finds a link between having a sense of power and having a propensity to give short shrift to a crucial part of the decision-making process: listening to advice. Power increases confidence which can lead to an excessive belief in one’s own judgment and ultimately to flawed decisions. …

“In addition to confirming the previous experiments’ finding that more powerful people were less likely to take advice and were more likely to have high confidence in their answers, this final experiment showed that high-power participants were less accurate in their answers than low-power participants.”

A related paper by a different group of researchers, led by USC Professor Nathanael J. Fast adds some nuance to this finding:

“Experiencing power leads to overconfident decision-making. The findings, through both mediation and moderation, also highlight the central role that the sense of power plays in producing these decision-making tendencies.

“First, sense of power, but not mood, mediated the link between power and overconfidence. Second, the link between power and overconfidence was severed when access to power was not salient to the powerful and when the powerful were made to feel personally incompetent in their domain of power.

“These findings indicate that only when objective power leads people to feel subjectively powerful does it produce overconfident decision-making.”

Unfortunately, the last finding doesn’t much change the fundamental situation for Presidents, who are extraordinarily powerful, except maybe when they deal with scientific issues that are not part of their self-image — and, even then, the position lends greater credence to their views than may be warranted.

Professor See and colleagues provided some advice about overcoming this problem:

“For one thing, organizations could formally include advice gathering at the earliest stages of the decision-making process, before powerful individuals have a chance to form their own opinions. Encouraging leaders to refrain from commenting on decisions publicly could also keep them from feeling wedded to a particular point of view.”

Whether or not you might find this research conforms to your own experience, the last point — gathering in lots of information before public leaders decide — is a reasonable and feasible suggestion to improve decision making in many cases. Today, the Internet and the collaborative discussion tools it offers can make this happen fairly easily.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Norman Jacknis

Written by

Senior Fellow, Intelligent Community Forum; Columbia University Faculty. Former Director, Cisco IBSG Public Sector & CIO Westchester County, NY