Wouldn't it be great if all decisions were a clear choice between right and wrong, good and bad? It would take a minute to decide what to do, and you'd move on to the next one unencumbered by lingering doubts.
Sadly, that's not a scenario most managers would recognize. From setting strategic goals to handling a tricky team member, the majority of decisions that managers face are complex. There's no black or white – just a sea of gray.
"Getting gray area decisions right is the core of managers' jobs, and the better you do the job, the better your career prospects, and the better you feel about your work," says Joe Badaracco, the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School and Faculty Chair of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo.
The "five timeless questions" are based on principles of humanism, a Renaissance movement that prized ancient Classical learning and scientific developments. Using a broader definition, humanism values the instincts and abilities of humans – a refreshing approach in a world where automation is easing its tentacles into every aspect of life.
The central theme of Badaracco's book is that gray areas at work should be tackled as a manager, but resolved as a human being. So as a manager, you start by gathering and assessing the best data, and get input from experts and people with ground experience.
"In other words, you really work the process to try to learn as much about the problem and which options look better," Badaracco tells me, in our Expert Interview. "That’s just managing really well and sometimes that takes care of a gray area problem. You and your team come up with something."
Then, if the problem is still gray, you switch from manager to human, or in Badaracco’s words, "it becomes a judgment call."
But not a split-second one. The five questions explored in his book provide the framework for a careful decision-making process – a honing and justification of your ultimate judgment.
The first question is, "What are the net-net consequences?" By this, Badaracco means how will the various options you're weighing up affect everybody and everything, from you and your team, to your organization and even your industry. The idea is to see "the whole playing field, the whole picture," he says.
But this question isn't enough on its own. Here's a hypothetical situation from the book that illustrates why not. Imagine you're visited one night by three police officers, who tell you there are six people on life support at a nearby hospital, urgently in need of organ transplants. You are a rare match for them all, so the officers have come to take you to the hospital. You're to give your one life to save the other six.
The Moral Compass of Decisions
When you only consider the consequences, this seems like a perfectly reasonable request and a great solution to a big problem. But of course, it's wrong on so many levels. That's why the first question is no good on its own.
So, next ask yourself, "What are my core obligations?" This brings a moral compass into the decision making. After duty comes pragmatism, with the third question,"What will work in the world as it is?" Here, Badaracco discusses the work of the Italian philosopher and writer Niccolò Machiavelli.
The fourth question, "Who are we?", prompts us to look at the problem from an organizational perspective. And the final question is, "What can I live with?" This is when you step back from the other considerations and listen to your intuition.
"Sometimes you can go through those first four questions – consequences, basic human duties, political pragmatics, organizational values – and the answer is pretty clear. But sometimes it still isn't," Badarraco says.
"The pragmatics may pull you in one direction. You may feel some obligations or organizational values pull you in another direction. And then you've got to decide, and that's where the mantra, "Work the problem as a manager and resolve it as a human being" really comes into play."
So what does all this look like in practice? I asked Badarraco to share a real-life example of a manager grappling with a difficult decision. In this audio clip from our Expert Interview you can hear what he said.
Do you have a favorite decision-making process? Join the discussion, below!
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In turbulent times, mid-to-long-term planning lets you and your organization focus on the things you can control – and at least be aware of the things you can't. Get it right, and you'll keep a handle on who you are as a company, what you want to achieve, how you’re going to do that, by when, and with what effect. And you'll spot some of the difficulties and dangers ahead.