When decisions go awry, we usually experience feelings of regret. We hear talk of unintended consequences, faulty communication, poor training or planning, or "inadequate preparation." Investigations, post-mortems, blame-fests, recriminations, and post-decision conflict ensue. We sometimes reassign or "release" anyone involved in the decision, or we reorganize business units.
Sometimes — rarely — we examine the decision process itself.
Is there not a systematic way of avoiding all this? What would actually be required to reduce the incidence of bad decisions?
As you might expect, there is no simple answer that improves every decision. But there is an approach — a perspective, really — that reduces the probability that any given decision might lead to trouble. I call that approach congruent decision-making.
The term congruent comes from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and from the work of family therapist Virginia Satir (1916-1988). Although they used the term slightly differently from each other — and from what I'm proposing here — there is significant overlap between them, and with my usage. Applied to decision-making, I take the meaning of congruence to be alignment between the considerations that led to the decision and the overall needs and desires of all affected stakeholders, broadly defined. Notice that for congruence to apply, the decision itself need not be fully aligned with the needs and desires of stakeholders; rather, it is the set of considerations that underlie the decision that must include the needs and desires of all stakeholders.
For example, a decision process would likely be incongruent if it's kept confidential from some subset of stakeholders, and if it limits or prohibits the transmission of their concerns to the person or people making the decision. But that Incongruent decision processes
have an elevated probability
of producing bad decisionsdecision process would likely be congruent if it included consideration of the concerns of those excluded stakeholders, even if the situation required confidentiality. In that case, the process must include a trusted representative who can express fairly and energetically the concerns of the excluded stakeholders.
The conditions that congruence requires fall into two categories. In this Part I, I propose a framework for ensuring that stakeholders are well informed and free to express their needs and desires without fear of retribution. In Part II, next time, I offer a framework that ensures that when stakeholders do express their needs and desires, they do so forthrightly.
In what follows, the term representatives denotes people authorized and trusted to faithfully and energetically represent the concerns of the stakeholders they represent. Representatives might be needed when the number of stakeholders is more than a few, or when the subject matter of the decision is sensitive and cannot be disclosed to the stakeholders themselves. Representatives have free access to all information relative to the decision.
Criteria ensuring stakeholders' freedom of expression
Here are four criteria that, if satisfied, increase the congruence of decision-making processes.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are fully informed
- Stakeholders or their representatives have access to all information available to the decision team. Moreover, the access they have is equivalent in timeliness and convenience to the access the rest of the decision team enjoys.
- Stakeholder representatives must be equal partners in the decision process. Free access to information for stakeholder representatives is perhaps best illustrated by what is not free access. Bringing a stakeholder representative into the process during a defined time window, usually near the end of the process, to "hear employee concerns" is not free access. Designating a representative long after the decision process is underway, without involving the representative in early discussions, is not free access.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are free to express their concerns
- All stakeholders and representatives are treated equally. Stakeholders or their representatives can register their concerns with the decision team without prejudice or restraint.
- For an example testing equal freedom of expression, compare the treatment of senior management and the treatment of all employees. If either one of these two classes has significantly greater opportunity to express their concerns, it's likely that the decision will be biased toward the favored class, and thus, incongruent with the needs or concerns of the entire set of stakeholders.
- Stakeholders or their representatives are free to ask that the decision include specific elements
- Stakeholders or their representatives are unrestricted with respect to the content of their expression of concerns. They need not confine their comments to issues that affect them directly, or to statements of the effect of the decision on their personal situations. If they feel that the decision at issue should include specific elements, they're free to say so.
- This freedom is necessary because of the difficulty of restricting it without biasing the outcome of the decision process. For example, in a decision regarding process improvement to enhance product quality, if we restrict the comments of employees to, say, ban commentary on issues that affect "quality of work life," then we might unintentionally restrict comments that relate to how quality of work life affects product quality. We thus would be discouraging any investigation of some possibly important factors that compromise product quality.
- Stakeholders or their representatives need not fear retaliation for their participation in the process
- Bias (incongruence) can arise as a result of any hint of coercion in connection with expressions of concerns relative to the decision process or the content of the decision being considered. When stakeholders or their representatives expect retaliation or rejection, they're more likely to withhold comments, or shade them. And that leads to bias and incongruence.
- This freedom is necessary because the decision-makers need to know the full consequences of choosing any of the options before them. When stakeholders withhold their comments, or shade them, they conceal the truth.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- More Stuff and Nonsense
- Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture.
These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help.
Here are some examples.
- Responding to Threats: I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure
mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
- The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots
of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential
conflicts of interest.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
- Workplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I
- In the workplace, social exclusion is the practice of systematically excluding someone from activities
in which they would otherwise be invited to participate. When used in workplace politics, it's ruinous
for the person excluded, and expensive to the organization.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.