The No. 1 Cause of Bad Decisions At Work

bad decisionTo understand all the consequences of an important choice takes time and attention -- even if both are hard to come by.

I've written before about the importance of sleep.

Tired brains lose their capacity to think critically, to evaluate data, and to understand the meaning of evidence. But chronic fatigue in the workplace isn't the only invisible risk we run daily. So too is speed.

I know, I know: We're all supposed to work in fast companies in which quick decisions today are better than perfect answers a week from now. In the blink of an eye, we're all supposed to be naturally brilliant. But I'm not so sure.

Recent experiments conducted by the Kellogg School's J. Keith Murnighan demonstrated that, asked to choose between two communications --one honest, the other less so -- the students who were given more time made the more ethical choice. Those under time pressure were more selfish. But given the opportunity for contemplation, participants were able to consider the consequences of their actions and to think of others beyond just themselves.

I can't be surprised by these findings. Ethical thinking is cognitively expensive: It takes effort, focus and time. It's easily crowded out by multitasking, distractions and fatigue. Many other experiments demonstrate that people often make unethical choices not because they intended to -- but because they didn't see that ethics were involved at all.

To understand the full repercussions of any decision takes time and attention. It can't be done if the text you're sent with a tricky question requires an instant solution. And it won't be done if all you're trying to do is whittle down to a manageable number the screen full of emails you received during lunch. Time and focus are both hard to get and to hang onto in a busy workplace.

Reading the study, I can't help but remember a great detail I found when I ploughed through the documentary evidence presented in the trial of Enron CEO, Ken Lay. The company Post-it notes carried a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." But of course the company moved so fast, no one ever had time to read it -- never mind think about it.



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How to Complain in the Workplace


Margaret Heffernan

Editor

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2011, she published her third book, Willful Blindness.

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Ken

It's amazing when you consider that Medical interns are often driven past the point of exhaustion and they have lives in tn their hands..

May 01 2012 at 2:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
keedyk87

Business Ethics, is that some new creation from which to Profit, or to garnish Salad with?

April 30 2012 at 5:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy

Could it just be being a moron? lol

April 30 2012 at 1:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andrea

From my experience in the world of business it always seems it's 'one step forward, two steps back'. Would be nice to really be able to analyze the situation from all angles and then make a prudent rational decision. Worked with engineers on the propulsion of the doomed Challenger shuttle ~ many of them were dead set against the launch due to the extreme cold temperatures but it was the first time a private citizen (teacher Christa McAuliffe) would be in space. Hence, after a few delays due to weather conditions and rescheduling launch with all the various media present NASA decided to go ahead. As mentioned previously many of the engineers knew it would be a BAD decision and you know how that turned out....

April 30 2012 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ezspin42

Anyone think of inter-employee conflict? If one is constantly stressed or worried about that, poor decisions WILL arise

April 29 2012 at 8:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
crazy ray

The No. 1 cause of bad decisions is bad info. The No. 2 is prejudicial opinions. Try talking to someone who actually succeeded in business, not some academic.

April 29 2012 at 7:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
NiNo

I agree. Chronic Fatigue, lack of sleep, and stress will result in more bad decisions being made.

April 29 2012 at 6:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan

You guys are full of crap! No amount of studies will tell you what the real reason is unless you turn off that bias switch. It is called stupid management. I performed analysis in manufacturing(domestic and overseas) and found that most of the time it is management wanting to get the product or service out there so quick they make snap decisions that affect quality and productivity. Many times a quick decision made by engineers or even a production workers are the best decisions and the reason is because they are the front lines to mfg and many of them know how the product should actually work. But the executives have the final say and usually they do not know what they are doing so a bad decision is made. Try doing a new study looking at management!

April 27 2012 at 10:03 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Dan's comment
Jodun

Dan,

I think you make the mistaken assumption that a decision made by anyone other than management is of any importance to most companies. Obviously the people who do the work and know the technology can and mostly will make better decisions, but they are of no consequence. The only people that "matter" are the execs, since they are well paid to make decisions they know absolutely nothing about. Obviously if they knew something about the topics they are being asked for a decision, they wouldn't be worth listening to. Only people who know nothing about a topic can make useful decisions... Or so I think our management-types believe.

April 27 2012 at 12:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jodun's comment
Andrea

Yup, that about sums it up perfectly.

April 30 2012 at 12:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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