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Why do they never decide?

I must admit that I never found a way to interview no-decision managers directly on their inability to make decisions. I am certain that one cannot just ask:

“I know you are recognised as an experienced no-decision manager. Why do you never make decisions?”

Coaches and psychologists

I have, however, questioned management coaches and psychologists on the subject of no-decision managers, but their replies to this question are unsatisfactory. A majority believe that no-decision managers do not make decisions because of “fear”: fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of something. Some think no-decision managers are searching for the perfect decision, which doesn’t exist. Others say they do not want to harm anyone with a particular decision. The psychologists generally agree the fear goes back to their childhood. The coaches think they can cure them of this lack of decision making.

But I disagree. I have never met a no-decision manager who was fearful.  Not deciding is a way of life for them, and they do not feel the need to explain themselves, and they never do anyway. Some research has been done on decision-making, and unknown to these researchers some of their findings go a long way to explain why no-decision managers choose not to decide. As an example, I will show just one, in this article.

Definition of a decision

First, I need to explain the definition of a decision. Unbelievably, dictionaries do not have the same definitions of the word “decision,” so I will take the one that I consider to be the most exhaustive, the one in the Oxford English Dictionary. According to them a decision is a process and there are three parts. To summarise, the first phase in the process is the preparation of the decision to be made. The second is the act of deciding. And the third is implementing the decision taken.

Research on ‘decision fatigue’

Research has been done on ‘decision fatigue’ by Jonathan Levav of Stanford, and Shai Danziger and Liora Avniam-Pesso of Ben-Gurion University, on decision-making by judges on parole boards. Their research found that as the number of decisions increased during the day the harder it became for the judges to make them. Eventually the brain looks for shortcuts, usually two: the first is to act recklessly and the second just is to do nothing and not decide.

No-decision managers use this second shortcut, albeit on a permanent basis every time a decision comes up to be made. They do nothing. They are in a sort of permanent state of ‘decision exhaustion’ without having expended any energy or effort and without having made any decisions in the first place. All eight of the no-decision managers that I knew, without exception, used this shortcut as a primary decision avoidance tactic.

The Stanford and Ben-Gurion researchers also discovered that, when decision-making is broken down into the three phases, similar to those defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: what they call the pre-decisional phase, the decision phase and the post-decisional phase, it is only the decision phase that is tiring and causes ‘decision fatigue’, not the pre- or post-decision phase. Or to use the Oxford English Dictionary definition, it is only this “action of arriving at a conclusion regarding a matter under consideration.” This is exactly how no-decision managers behave, they are unable to take this action, so nothing happens when the act of deciding come up.

They excel, however, in the both the pre-decisional phase and the post-decisional phase. The pre-decisional phase is the analysis required up to the time a decision is taken. This involves identifying the problem, gathering and analysing data, and evaluating alternatives. This, you may remember is one of their survival tactics using the principle of “hiding in excellence.” The post-decisional phase is the implementation of a decision once made by someone else. No-decision managers implement these decisions made by others precisely and to the letter, because they are just following instructions. All four of the senior no-decision managers, I worked with, were experts in the analysis phase and in implementing decisions of others.

This is why no-decision manager do not make decisions. It is part of their nature. It is the way they manage, so there is no need to interview them anyway.

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