Decision Making From Hell

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, loss 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 measures such as hypothesis-driven approaches to solve problems, inceptions to kick off projects 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, s**t happens. Over the years, I have had the privilege of being very close to some of these decisions. A closer look reveals a thing I call the 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 a sub-optimal path. 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. Let’s discuss these traits.

I am better than anyone else

The first tell-tale sign is an elitist or prejudiced mindset. This often manifests as poor judge of talent, the stifling or ridiculing of differing views and the constant moving of goal posts. The people who think in this 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 don’t quite align with the elitest’s mindset, they 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 their views. Instead of giving these views due consideration, the elitists 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 debate 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 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 discount opposing views and pull others down.

The idea is mine and it is going to work

The second sign is making it personal — whether it’s the approach to a problem or the outcome of a decision. It’s 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 lead with conviction. 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 continuing 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 refuse 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 reconsidering 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 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 sub-optimal 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 their losses 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 use the blame shifting tactic and statements such as “If you knew that the approach didn’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. At least we now know that it ain’t due to some random factors.

Originally published at on June 17, 2017.

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