Making a work or career decision? Check out the experts’ methods

Decisions Illustration With People Creating Options Around A Conference Table

Illustrations include graphics by DavidArts via Illustrations and story by K. Patricia Bouweraerts.

Having two or three options can sometimes be more nerve-wracking than getting just one.

Project management experts and social scientists have offered up methods to help with decision making. In management and coaching models, decisions are framed as strategic steps or a checklist of criteria. Other group and individual systems advise brainstorming and ranking alternatives, or framing a decision in a sequence of “yes or no” questions.

Caribou Honig, founding partner of QED Investors wrote on that it can be about open-minded exploration — experimentation that leads to unexpected options. At one point in his own path, he was feeling worn out. Honig gave up a dream job at Capital One after ten years there, looking to bring more meaning into his career path.

“This period in my career taught me to accept that it’s OK to have a lot of ideas, even half-baked ideas,” he wrote. “While working backwards from a clear goal can be very important, I learned that sometimes the best ideas arise just from going on an open-ended journey. You don’t always need to have the strategy and the answers and the plan.”

Honig was able to do freelance consulting, which led to him co-founding a venture capital firm.

“I love my job, to the point that my wife comments that I ‘bleed QED,’” he wrote.

This month, Workplace Story investigated some decision-making systems for answering questions related to career direction, and for addressing challenging individual or group decisions at work.

Before the decision-making process, avoid false assumptions

Option One Being Created By A Staff Member At the TableThe classical decision-making approach used in project management is defined in Frank R. Parth’s paper, “Critical decision-making skills for project managers,” including the following six steps:

  • Identify the problem
  • Generate all possible solutions
  • Generate objective criteria
  • Select the best option
  • Implement the solution
  • Monitor the results

Parth sees logical decisions free of bias as resulting from realistic and accurate assumptions. Early in the decision-making process, it is useful to ask what factors can be safely assumed and if known facts are true and unbiased. Also, it is valuable to think about whether the future is predictable enough to know what is best in the long term, if perceptions are objective, and whether the decision will be accepted by others.

“Most of us consider ourselves competent decision makers based on our own history of making reasonable decisions in past projects,” Parth wrote. “Yet there is a great deal of recent neurological research that indicates our brains really are not normally logical; in fact, most decisions are made emotionally and only later justified if questioned by the rational portion of our brains. Once a normal person has made a decision, he or she searches for data to support that decision rather than the other way around.

He added that it is important to examine if our logic is based on deductive reasoning. The well-known example of deductive reasoning is:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Because it is impossible for the conclusion, “Socrates is mortal” to be false if the first two premises are true, this is a valid argument. Deductive reasoning helps assure that decision making is a result of sound logical analysis.

In addition, Parth wrote that we sometimes mistake the symptom for the problem, and also that indivduals overestimate the reliability of memories. Because it is easier to remember the first and last items discussed than those in the middle, he recommended to write out a list when considering criteria.

Some assumptions result in limiting beliefs

Option Two Being Created By A Staff Member At the TablePeople can form self-defeating thoughts starting in childhood. These beliefs then limit career decisions.

In May 1991, Stanford University News Service published a press release, “How people choose ‘career paths’”. At 10 years of age, John Krumboltz, professor of education, wanted to become a medical doctor. But when he saw a neighbor’s compound fracture, he felt nauseous and decided to change his career aspirations.

“His own childhood yearning for a medical career, Krumboltz says, was guided by several false beliefs: That nausea at the sight of blood is a permanent affliction that cannot be overcome, that no one who has this affliction can become a doctor, and that the evidence is so compelling that no discussion is warranted,” according to the release.

Krumboltz found his assumptions may well have been false.

“He learned, much later, that this squeamishness is a temporary response that can be overcome rather easily, that many physicians have had to overcome it, and, most important, that talking about assumptions is a good way to test whether they are true.”

Decisions based on the Yelp model can be fairly effective

Option One Being Created By A Staff Member At the Table“People just aren’t very good at looking into their future and predicting correctly their emotional reactions to the events that might unfold,” said Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert on the Hidden Brain podcast.

Many seemingly unrelated parts of an experience affect the outcome of the entire event. He explained that humans leave out important details like the friendly receptionist at the dentist’s office when anticipating a dental visit, for instance. Also, individuals change their preferences or goals from the person they are when imagining future situations.

“Almost every event you experience feels different once you’ve experienced it than you imagined it would have beforehand,” Gilbert said. “That’s the part of our psychology we don’t seem very good at anticipating.”

His studies found that people make better decisions when they consult others who have already decided on a possible option, rather than to imagine themselves in the future based on what they know about themselves and the factors in front of them.

“The problem is something we call the illusion of diversity,” Gilbert added. “We think we are utterly unique, that other people’s experiences might tell us a little bit about ours, but not very much, because after all, we’re so different than everybody. Well, nonsense. You’re not different than everybody.”

He concludes by saying that even this type of Yelp review system is flawed. Keeping that in mind, social scientists simply haven’t found a more effective way to make improved individual decisions, Gilbert added.

A series of questions can help guide a difficult decision

Option Four Being Created By A Staff Member At the TableAn intriguing decision-making model is proposed by Spencer Johnson, M.D. in his book, “’Yes’ or ‘No’: The Guide to Better Decisions.”

The book is written in an allegory style, involving a diverse group of people going on a long hike together in the mountains, and making decisions along the way. They make choices about aspects of their journey, and individually learn how to make better business decisions through experiences gained along the hike.

Dr. Johnson lays out the “Yes or No” method in four basic sections; make a tentative decision, ask three practical questions, ask three private questions, and then proceed with the initial decision, or rethink it. The three practical questions are as follows:

  • Am I pursuing the real need?
  • Am I informed of all the possible options?
  • Have I thought this through to a better result?

The three personal questions are the following:

  • Am I being honest with myself?
  • Does the decision feel right to me?
  • Do my actions show I believe I deserve better?

He wrote that if the answers to all six questions are “yes,” the tentative decision is most likely an effective one. But if the answer is “no” to any of the questions, rethink it to explore if a better decision is possible.

One other point Dr. Johnson makes concerns the way an individual feels when making a decision. If you feel tense or scared as you make a decision, this may predict a less than ideal outcome.

Group decision making involves discussion, then delegation or implementation

Option Five Being Created By A Staff Member At the TableAnother alternative in making decisions is to try a group-based approach.

“By tapping the unique qualities of group members, it is possible that the group can generate a greater number of alternatives that are of higher quality than the individual,” wrote Tim Barnett on “If a greater number of higher quality alternatives are generated, then it is likely that the group will eventually reach a superior problem solution than the individual.”

Barnett clarified that groups and teams differ. Teams may have shared leadership roles, collective accountability, and implement the solution instead of handing it off. On the other hand, groups may have a leader, individual accountability, and measure performance indirectly. Many times, groups delegate implementation to other staff members.

Groups making decisions typically range from two to seven members; made up of demographically similar or diverse members.

“Demographically diverse groups may have to overcome social barriers and difficulties in the early stages of group formation and this may slow down the group,” Barnett explained. “However, some research indicates that diverse groups, if effectively managed, tend to generate a wider variety and higher quality of decision alternatives than demographically homogeneous groups.”

Group decision-making methods include brainstorming, dialectical inquiry (devil’s advocacy), Delphi technique, and nominal group technique. Nominal group process has shown relatively high quality decision options in empirical research, he added.

In this structured process, group members privately propose comprehensive written ideas. They take turns providing their alternatives to be displayed on a chart or board visible to all members. At this step, questions from the group are limited to clarification. After all ideas are up, there is discussion, and ideas are ranked in preference order. Criticism is withheld during the analysis and rating.

While high quality alternatives result from group decision making, there are some disadvantages for which members should be aware. It is a slower process than individual decision making, group members may feel swayed to conform to the dominant or majority view, and there may be a shift toward less individual responsibility for the group’s results, Barnett added. Conversely, there can be more of a sense of ownership of the decision because all members had the chance to give input, he wrote.

Decisions can be like evaluating currents and ripples in the water

Option Six Being Created By A Staff Member At the TableBefore jumping into a large lake or the ocean for a swim, it is generally a good idea to get a sense of the currents, temperature, and depth of the water, not to mention finding out if there are any large rocks hidden under the surface.

In that way, a decision at work can be like testing the water for currents and rocks.

As the waves roll in, it is possible to get an idea of the power and timing of swells and tide. It can be like getting a sense of the rhythm of how events are unfolding in the workplace environment that may affect an outcome.

Then, observing the current and undertow can provide clues to how easy or difficult it will be to handle the waves. If the undercurrents are gentle, a decision might not have anything fighting against it, but if an undertow is present, a decision’s outcome may be uncertain.

In general, whatever decision-making model an individual or group uses, it can also be enlightening to bounce ideas off a trusted co-worker or mentor — not to hike or swim alone, but to tackle that tricky work or career decision with a smart, skilled guiding inspiration.

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