Knowing when to stand your ground

New research suggests that strategies for making good decisions where the choices are complex may be very different from those where the clear answer involves courage.

steve kelman

Remember the old Tom Petty song, "I Won’t Back Down"? Petty croons about a hero who vows to stand his ground, who won't be pushed around, even up against the gates of hell. There’s something very American about the message -- a lone, strong individual standing up for what's right.                 

Interestingly, though, if you look at the academic literature about how executives should make decisions in government, the message is actually the opposite of Petty's.

Consider, for example, the literature on "groupthink," anchored by the famous work of the psychologist Irving Janis more than 30 years ago. You will see that experts believe the bigger danger for decisions that executives in government make is that they don’t back down nearly enough. Leaders get too committed to their initial point of view. Instead of using their advisors to provide additional information, to register and discuss dissent, and to consider alternatives to where they are heading, they use their advisors for support and endorsement. The result is often ill-considered decisions. Critics of groupthink instead advocate a model Janis calls "vigilant decision-making," where the executive consciously brings in dissenting points of view, doesn’t commit too quickly to a decision and continues to gather information.

Just about all the academic research on groupthink – which seeks to relate the quality of decision-making processes to how well decisions tend to turn out -- involves national security decision-making by presidents. So together with Ron Sanders, Gayatri Pandit and Sarah Taylor of Booz Allen Hamilton, I sought to see if the vigilant decision-making model made a difference for other government leaders.

Our research looked at federal agency executives outside the national security field. In all, we interviewed 20 heads of subcabinet organizations -- half of them outstanding ones as nominated by good government experts, the rest chosen at random from the Plum Book -- with the same questions about how they made difficult decisions.

What we found in our research was that, in fact, both groups of executives were quite methodical about gathering information and soliciting opinions. They seemed vigilant. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising – government is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies carefully ponder decisions and give reasons for the decisions that are made.

But we did find something surprising that made us wonder whether, contrary to the worries about groupthink that dominate discussions of decision-making, there are times when Petty’s admonition is the right one for senior decision-makers.

We asked our respondents to talk about the most difficult decision they had made on their job, why it was difficult, and how they went about deciding. We expected them to talk about complex decisions – requiring large amounts of information-gathering, uncertainty and tradeoffs among conflicting objectives and interests. Instead, nine of the 10 outstanding executives cited not a complex decision, but rather one where it was easy to decide what the right thing to do was -- but hard to actually do it. 

This was because the decision the executive thought was right ran into a wall of opposition from colleagues, superiors or overseers -- or because it involved a wrenching personnel action like downsizing or getting rid of a senior employee who was not performing well enough. Making these decisions required moral courage.

What struck us is that the prescriptions for how to make good decisions where the decisions are complex may be very different from those for when the decision involves courage.

When complexity is the challenge, the standard prescriptions of wide consultation, information gathering, and encouragement of dissent prevail. But if the decision requires courage, it might be better for the executive to introspect, to consult his or her own conscience, and to seek out advisors' moral support rather than second opinions. Indeed, six of the nine outstanding executives made the decision requiring courage basically by themselves.

Good agency executives might need to be ambidextrous, changing their decision-making style depending on whether the difficult decision involves complexity or courage.

You can read a report of this research here.

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