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Research on no-decision managers

As you might imagine it is impossible to complete serious academic research on no-decision managers. They are unlikely to volunteer to be examined and if management let researchers loose in their organisation in search of them, interviews would have to be done without the knowledge or the consent of the no-decision managers themselves. And then researchers would have to reveal the no-decision status of these managers to management who would probably fire them.

Decision Fatigue

The only way is to work with several of them throughout a career and then write about how they behave and work, as I did. But all is not lost, research has been done on ‘decision fatigue’. In an article in the New York Times on 17 August 2011, ‘Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?’ John Tierney commented on research done by Jonathan Levav of Stanford, and Shai Danziger and Liora Avniam-Pesso of Ben-Gurion University on decision-making by judges on parole boards. He concluded:

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences … The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.”

All the no-decision managers I met, without exception, used this second shortcut as their favourite tactic to avoid decision-making. They do nothing, or as Tierney calls it, ‘ducking a decision’. This cannot be a coincidence.

No-decision managers are in a sort of permanent but acute state of ‘decision exhaustion’ without having expended any energy or effort and without having made any previous decisions as did the judges! But for no-decision managers this is not an energy saver. They spend as much energy ignoring repeated requests for decisions from their subordinates even by doing nothing, as normal manager do to make decisions.

Damage to the prefrontal cortex

Research has also been done on mentally ill patients or patients with brain damage who are unable to make decisions. Antonio Damasio discovered, while studying people who had damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, that some are unable to make decisions but keep intact most of their other mental capacities.

I noticed that two patients in Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain (2005) had similar characteristics to no-decision managers.

The first patient

“had the requisite knowledge, attention and memory; his language was flawless; he could perform calculations; he could tackle the logic of an abstract problem. There was only one significant accompaniment to his decision-making failure: a marked alteration of the ability to experience feelings.”

No-decision managers have all these characteristics but I could not verify the last one: an ‘alteration of the ability to experience feelings’. What I did notice though, was that no-decision managers show a complete lack of sympathy for the wellbeing of their subordinates.

In an anecdote about the second patient, Damasio describes what happened when the patient is presented with a decision to make:

“I was discussing with the same patient when his next visit to the laboratory should take place. I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other. The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting his calendar… For the better part of a half-hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could reasonably think about concerning a simple date … but we finally did tell him, quietly that he should come on the second of the alternative dates. His response was equally calm and prompt. He simply said: ‘That’s fine.’”

It is quite remarkable that this behaviour exactly mirrors that of a no-decision manager confronted with a decision to make: first extensive and excessive analysis, and second immediate acceptance of a proposed decision from a person in authority. This example is a patient–doctor relationship, but it precisely describes what happens when the boss of a no-decision manager suggests a solution to a no-decision subordinate: immediate and total acceptance of the suggestion.

In citing this research, I am not suggesting that no-decision managers suffer from mental illness, brain damage, lesions to the prefrontal cortex, damage to any part of the frontal lobe, brain tumours or any other of the mental ailments discussed in Damasio’s book. It is also clear that no-decision managers have nothing in common with judges in Israel or patients suffering from brain damage, but when I found that their behaviours were so close, I had to write about them. I will leave you to judge whether you think this is relevant or not.  

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