Believing in the power of education

Stephen Mitchell

Leader, Speaker, Trainer, Consultant, NED

By - Stephen Mitchell

Decisions….focus and ethics

Making decisions is a key part of our lives.  Everyday we make hundreds of them, often without really thinking at all.   But, how can we make the ones we do have to think about good ones, – how can we ensure we make the right decision?  And what role does ethics play?

There’s a massive body of work out there already about systematic thinking – I love the work of Daniel Kahneman and the way he shows how our brains can work on “autopilot”, and how we often tune out some really obvious things because we’re too focussed on something else.  Reading the book that I’ve linked to was a real eye opener for me.  As too was Daniel Goleman’s “Focus“.  It was fascinating to see some of the science behind the way that our brains work.  I really took it to heart that its okay to make decisions at the last minute – its not a bad thing.   I’ve often criticised myself for putting things off, and taken it to be a bad trait.  Actually, its when I focus the most.   I used to believe that was an excuse, but, Goleman puts it over very clearly, (and lets face it, he is the expert when it comes to all things focus related) that actually people focus in different ways, and for me, deadlines drive focus.

However, focus is only one part of decision making.  Even with focus we can make bad decisions.  So, how do we make good ones?

Evidence shows that high quality decision making and high performance go hand in hand.   Goodness knows that I’ve made my fair share of bad decisions over the years and I hope I’ve learned the lessons.  For me, a lot of what makes up high performance is about behaving ethically.   Call it karma, good luck, common sense, or just plain the right thing to do, but it does seem that in the long run, doing the right thing, is actually the right way to get better long term performance.   And a lot more sleep.

So, what are ethics and what is an ethical decision?   Any decision can be ethical, if you justify it, but that’s not necessarily what you, I, or anyone else would define it as.  Therefore, there must be a rule, or crib sheet as to what is ethical, and what isn’t?    I’ve been reading a lot about John Rawls recently, and his Theory of Fairness.   Essentially, Rawls creates a model whereby every decision can be viewed through fair conditions of choosing.  He calls this the Original Position.    Imagine a situation whereby you’ve woken up, unsure of who you are, who your family and friends are, and what role you hold in society.   You could be the head of state, or you could be a starving child in the middle of Sudan.   Blessed by circumstance or cursed by circumstance.    An equal chance of either option.    If you view a decision making situation through that lens, that you have an equal chance of being the ‘least off’, then you, and any rational person, would make decisions that benefit the least off the most.    I think, in general, that is how we would define ethical actions in society too.  Certainly our national politics is all about trying to use progressive societal structures to benefit the poorest in our society.

When thinking about Rawl’s work I find it to be a model that is pretty good for making decisions.   It forces you to set aside the natural bias that we have, forged out of the heuristics that Kahneman talks about, and to think about the decision, and it’s impacts, on a wider group of people that just yourself     For me, that’s good decision making     The challenge is being focuses enough to remember to do this!