Decision Making From Hell

Wilson Wong
Jun 2, 2020 · 5 min read

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 users or customers and financial losses.

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

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.

A closer look at some of the decisions that did not go well often reveals a thing I call unholy trinity. 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 for sub-optimal paths to be pursued. The presence of individuals exercising these traits during decision making greatly diminishes the effectiveness of the check and balance measures mentioned above. The presence of individuals with these traits in the governance structure will ensure that the business continues investing in less than ideal paths to solving critical problems. We will discuss these traits.

I am better than anyone else

In other scenarios where opinions are expressed that do not quite align with the people with such a mindset, these perspectives 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 the views. Instead of giving different views due consideration, the elitists also 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 debates with them difficult, if not impossible. Even after exhaustive evidence has been put forth to support an argument, they set up another expectation or demand for 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 continue to discount opposing views and pull others down.

The idea is mine and it is going to work

Now that deciding on a path or whether to continue 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 refuses 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 to reconsider 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 that they steered the business towards.

You will listen to me or else

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 cost that has already been incurred, 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 the loses 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 will use the blame shifting tactic and statements such as “If you know that the approach doesn’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.

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Wilson Wong

Written by

I’m a professional data + product leader trained in comp + info science. I code, write, take photos for fun. https://wilsonwong.co

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

Wilson Wong

Written by

I’m a professional data + product leader trained in comp + info science. I code, write, take photos for fun. https://wilsonwong.co

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +799K followers.

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