Why “decision making” is the cancer of organisations, and how your organisation can make a difference and improve performance at the same time

Your organisation upholds racism and discrimination

Jorn Verweij
22 Sep 20

An original article by Decision Free Solutions.

The complete article can be downloaded as PDF

Management summary

This article sets out to show that wherever in the organisation choices are made which are “not fully substantiated to contribute to achieving a desired outcome,” performance suffers and societal biases are welcomed in.  Today’s organisations are abound with these type of choices (a.k.a. “decisions”) because of “hierarchical decision making” and the prevalence of rules, procedures, protocols, checklists and contracts — all of which tend to contain plenty of unsubstantiated choices.

To improve this situation — to replace decisions with substantiated choices — organisations are to utilise all available expertise. Where expertise is concerned, the thing of note is that it has no colour, gender,  form, name, title or religion.

Before expertise can be utilised, it has to be identified first. Unfortunately, most of today’s organisations identify “experience” instead of “expertise,” disadvantaging the underprivileged (getting fewer opportunities to gain experience) even further.

This article argues and explains that the identification and utilisation of expertise is essential in drastically reducing decision making. It is this, and not traditional diversity programs, which is going to fend off societal biases from entering organisations, resolve workplace frustrations (e.g. lack of autonomy, freedom, trust,  responsibility) and improve organisational performance — all at the same time.

This article goes on to describe how you can determine, by simple observation, to what extent your organisation allows societal biases to enter its culture, and what you and your organisation can do to make a difference.


This is what it took

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man and a father of five, was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. All of it recorded. I saw a video-still of the officer kneeling on his neck, his hand in his pocket.

I am a 48-year old white man and a father of three, living in the Netherlands. If I see an image of sickening violence I look away. Because I can.

It took me another ten days or so to realise that I can’t. That I have to take my hand out of my pocket. Using it to turn pages and learn about racism is merely the beginning.

My perspective on racism changed in twenty minutes

The book I picked up was “So you want to talk about race” by Ijeoma Oluo [1]. It changed my perspective in less than twenty minutes. That is how little effort was required.

Ijeoma changed my perspective by clarifying the definition of racism. To “racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race,” she added “when those views are reinforced by systems of power.”

This definition now included me. I live and work within these systems of power. I consume, choose, receive, send, vote, act or remain passive within these systems of power. Systems which, among many other things, make it harder to get the job, to get promoted and to get equal pay on the basis of your race, your gender, your name, your religion, the way you look.

In her book Ijeoma writes about the importance of being aware of one’s privileges. She writes that when you benefit from having certain privileges, then you are also automatically in a position of power to confront and ultimately change these privileges. Vice versa, when you merely accept your privileges, you are perpetuating the struggles of others who lack your unearned advantages.

I have been aware of my privileges, but I never consciously encountered them. Why is that?

I live and work in systems in which I am privileged for more reasons than I can list. I am white, a man, straight, able-bodied, tall, thin, neuro-typical, cisgender, university-educated, born, raised and living in the Netherlands carrying a Dutch name, and because of still other reasons too.

I have been aware of my privileges, but I never consciously encountered them. I never felt a finger tapping me on my shoulder, I never found myself raising an eyebrow, and I never felt uncomfortable when opportunities presented themselves.

Why is that? Through which “invisible” mechanism are our systems handing out advantages to the privileged? What is generating my tail wind? To what have I been so blind that — having no clue — Reni Eddo-Lodge would not want to talk about race to me [2]?


An urgently needed new perspective on decision making

I have known the answer for several years, I just never asked myself the question. My unearned advantages are handed to me through (hierarchical) decision making.

Where racism and discrimination are the cancer of society, decision making is the cancer of organisations.

Decision making is the cancer of organisations. Overcoming it will (also) improve performance.

Almost for as long as I have known the answer, I have been trying to come up with an accessible way to explain its logic. What has made this so challenging is that it requires a paradigm shift of how to look at decisions.

Unfortunately my line of reasoning and the arguments I like to make are too long for a casual read. The topic is also complex, and my writing not always up to it. I can only blame myself if I lose you along the way. But giving it a try may be worth it.

The term “decision” as used in organisations today has no distinct meaning, it is always in need of context 

To explain the title of this article I first have to talk, at length, about decision making. This may seem nonsensical. You already know what a decision is, you make them all the time, big and small, good ones and also bad ones. Organisations do so too: if nobody would ever make a decision nothing would get done. The entire organisational structure is a reflection of who is entitled to make them. Yet I’ll argue that decisions need to be avoided, that they have to be replaced with something else.

When talking about decisions we use adjectives as small, big, complex, important, bad, easy, smart, poor, wrong, right, hard and still many other adjectives too. It is not always clear whether the adjective refers to who is entitled to make them, to whether or not there is sufficient information to base them on, or to their eventual impact on what needs to be achieved. The term “decision” as used in organisations today has no distinct meaning, it is always in need of context.

The essence of almost all workplace changes proposed is a shift from “decisions which increase risk” to those which don’t

But there is another, clearer, and much more powerful way to classify and distinguish between decisions: decisions which increase risk, and decisions which don’t.

Decisions which increase risk are choices not fully substantiated to contribute to achieving a particular goal. Decisions which don’t increase risk are fully substantiated (and thus become the logical next thing to do), or they indicate a formal action instead — like an “approval” or a “go ahead”.

Making a distinction between decisions which increase risk and those which don’t — and then identifying them — turns out to be crucial. It allows us to look at how organisations are run in a completely different way. Among many other things, it allows us to predict organisational performance, to understand why so many organisations have a need for resource-gobbling control, and to explain the mechanism by which racism, discrimination (e.g. the gender gap in leadership-roles [16]) and many other workplace frustrations are allowed to enter the door.

In fact, the essence of almost all workplace changes proposed today, and the underlying principle of the “future of work,” is creating the conditions to shift from “decisions which increase risk” to those which don’t.

Decisions which don’t increase risk aren’t actually decisions

Where the decisions which don’t increase risk are concerned: if something is either transparent, entirely logical and the obvious way forward, or merely a formal action, then, for clarity’s sake — and following the dictionary definition of what a decision is — we shouldn’t call them “decisions” in the first place. Because they aren’t: they don’t involve a choice.

The dominant paradigm about decision making is failing our societies, our organisations and us

That decision making needs to be avoided (or “replaced”) is a paradigm shift. And a paradigm shift is required because the existing dominant paradigm — decision making is a strength, a token of power, an earned right, an indication of boldness and incisiveness, a skill, an organisational necessity, “the way of running things” — is failing our societies, our organisations, and the people operating within them. It is failing us because it stands in the way of utilising our skills, talents and motivation.

The dominant paradigm on decision making is not only failing us, it is also illogical. Starting with the dictionary definition of what a decision is — “a conclusion or resolution achieved after careful thought” — it follows that a “decision” is a special type of choice.

A decision is a choice made in a situation which is not fully transparent — at least not to the person making the decision (hence requiring careful thought). A clarified definition of a “decision” is that it is a choice which is not fully substantiated to contribute to achieving a desired outcome [3,4].

This implies that to avoid decision making non-ambiguous desired outcomes must always be in place. And the skills and talents needed to create transparency and substantiate the choices to be made must be both identified and utilised.

This is not something new. When organisations want to “distribute” or “share” decision making, or “push” decision making down the organisation, achieve it through consensus, or involve everyone affected by decisions in the decision making process, they generally strive to involve expertise and to substantiate decisions to a greater extent. What is new is the clarified definition of what a decision actually is, allowing  for a systematic approach to identify and minimise decision making throughout the organisation.

Rules, procedures, protocols, checklists and contracts, they tend to contain “past-decisions” which continue to increase organisational risk

It goes without saying that, in many situations, making decisions cannot be avoided. Because there is simply no time to find the expert or to substantiate the choice. Or the situation is so dynamic that even an expert is not able to fully substantiate it. All of which is true, none of which changes the fact that decisions increase risk. A risk which can still be minimised.

Interestingly, with the clarified definition of a decision in mind, it becomes obvious that our organisations are abound with “choices which cannot be fully substantiated to help to achieve a goal”. For example when the goal is poorly defined or ambiguous, or the choice was made in the past, in circumstances which have since changed.

The latter is frequently the case in organisational rules, procedures, protocols, checklists and contracts. They tend to contain plenty of “past-decisions”. Because nobody can tell, or checks or verifies, whether they still contribute to whatever desired outcome they once were to contribute to. They are often used as measures of control. They are simply there. In the way. Blocking the utilisation of expertise. Causing frustration.

Decisions increase risk. But decisions do something else as well. Decisions are also the vehicle for societal biases entering our organisations.


Why it is in everybody’s best interest to avoid decision making

That decisions increase risk is by no means new. It is, in fact, the raison d’être of a “decision making industry” offering books, methods, training and lots of consultancy.

The decision making industry recognises that to expect the people in decision-making-positions to routinely make “the right decisions” would be asking for the impossible. Even when all the required information is available to them — which it never is — they are, like the rest of us, only human.

We are incapable of recognising our own biases: the errors in the judgements we make are intuitive

The human brain makes use of a long list of biases — among which societal biases — to make sense of the world around us. These biases are at work when making a decision. What is more, even knowing these biases exist is of little practical help. Humans are incapable of recognising their own biases: the errors in the judgements we make are intuitive [5,6].

Again, because it is such a crucial point: whenever we make a choice in a situation which is not fully transparent to us, whenever we are not able to fully substantiate how our choice will contribute to achieving something, then we intuitively make use of a long list of biases to arrive at this choice. These biases include societal biases, which is how society perceives the value, the quality, and the personal characteristics of people solely based on their race, gender, form, name, title and religion.

Tragically, given that decisions increase risk and perpetuate societal biases, today’s organisations almost invariably have a pyramidical structure in which someone’s position in the hierarchy determines whether they are allowed to make decisions. This is the principle of hierarchical decision making.

In today’s organisations decisions tend to be God-given. They create an unsafe environment

Hierarchical decision making is, at first sight, a simple and also practical way of organising work. It may be slow at times, but at least everyone knows how it works. What makes it so harmful, however, is that the “power of hierarchy” makes these decisions incontestable. In today’s organisations, decisions tend to be God-given.

This not only applies to the decisions managers make, but also the decisions which lie hidden in rules, procedures, protocols, checklists and contracts. And all of these incontestable decisions increase organisational risk by failing to tap into available expertise — or even by preventing its utilisation — and by failing to reduce, manage and mitigate the risks they are associated with.

For many, hierarchical decision making creates an unsafe environment. They acutely sense the biases at play. They are the ones who suffer the greatest frustrations caused by decision making. Decisions affecting recruitment, invitations to meetings, speaking time, opportunities to represent the company, and, of course, promotions. For the majority of us, none of this is likely to happen “on purpose”. It happens intuitively, thoughtlessly, without conscious intent. As that is how biases work.

To arrive at some kind of a solution the paradigm shift has to be made

Taking everything together: if decisions perpetuate societal biases, increase risk, and hamper organisational performance, what is the alternative? How can organisations rid themselves of racism and discrimination and improve performance all at the same time?

Unfortunately, the “decision making industry” doesn’t see decisions as something to be avoided. It merely tries to “improve” decision making [7-13]. In the context of trying to overcome decision making it offers few practical solutions.

If we want to make a difference, the paradigm shift has to be made.


The rest of the article is available as PDF.


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