We all make decisions constantly. We decide what to wear, what to eat, whether to answer the phone, which route to take to work, and so on. We’re used to making decisions. But the really tough decisions are those where there’s right and wrong on both sides, or where our decisions may cause pain to another individual or to ourselves. It’s important, first, to understand just how we make decisions, and second, to have a method of evaluating things so we can make the tough choices with a clearer mind and easier heart.
So, how do we make decisions? Jean Piaget, a Swiss child psychologist, studied the ways children make decisions, and constructed a theory of what he called the “stages of moral development.” Later a gentleman named Lawrence Kolberg elaborated on Piaget’s theory and applied it to adults as well. This work states that, as we go through life, our decisions are based upon different factors, arranged in a hierarchy. The first way we’re motivated to make a decision is through the threat of punishment. That’s how a lot of us were raised growing up: “If you don’t clean your room, you can’t go to the party.” Punishment deals with fear and external motivation—not a very high place from which to make a decision. The second way we’re motivated is with reward. “If you clean your room, I’ll buy you that jacket you want.” This is how we turn our kids into capitalists. Reward is great motivation, but unless you want to be held hostage by constant demands, it’s not effective. If your kids or any of your employees ask you, “If I do that what will you give me?” you know they’re motivated only by reward.
The concept of good and bad is number three. You’re a good employee if you do this, a bad employee if you do that. However, the terms “good” and “bad” are relative; they mean the person doing the speaking is making a value judgment. If I call my employee “good,” what I’m really saying is, “You did what I wanted you to do.” But does that necessarily mean that the employee (or the customer) sees it in the exact same way? No. He or she could be saying inside, “Boy, that was a stupid way to get that done,” or “Gee, that wasn’t the kind of service I wanted.”
The fourth way to motivate us to make decisions is through rules and regulations. Did you ever hear your parents say, “As long as you live in this house, you’ll do the dishes” or “take out the garbage” or some other list of chores? Every business also has rules and regulations for its employees’ behavior. We all have to live with rules and regulations. However, what’s directing our choices in all of these cases—punishment, reward, good and bad, rules and regulations? External forces. We’re deciding based upon what other people are telling us, not what we’re telling ourselves.
That influence changes when we hit the fifth level of decisions: choice and commitment. As you grew up, you began to make more and more choices for yourself, right? You chose the courses you took in school, whether to go to college, what you majored in, where to live, who to date. You chose and then committed to that choice. Whether it’s the kind of peanut butter you buy or the job you take, choice and commitment form the basis of most adult decisions—which leads to the sixth level of decisions, internalization. You become what your choices have made you. You are a doctor, or a cop, or a secretary. You’re married or single. And the great thing is, you can continue to evolve based upon your choices every minute. None of us are truly stuck in what we are because we’re constantly evolving, constantly becoming something different and hopefully better. Becoming is the essence of living—you only stop becoming when they put dirt on your face. We need to be operating from the highest possible level of decision making, where we have internalized the ethics and values that are important to us and we allow ourselves to evolve as human beings, managers, workers, parents, spouses, children.
These stages of development are extremely useful when we examine our decisions from an ethical perspective. The first step is to identify your own level of decision making. It’s an important question, because you cannot lead people beyond where you are. The goal is for you and your associates to make decisions based upon choice and commitment and internalization. You want to choose and commit to the values of your company, and internalize those values so completely that there is no question about the appropriate response in any situation.
How can you tell where you or your associates are on this scale? If someone is working on levels one through four, they will use the phrase, “What do I have to do?” If they’re operating on levels five and six, they will be using the phrase, “What can I do?” Your people will tell you where they are. It’s your job to empower them to move to a different stage, to a different level of relating.
Here are what are called the Ten Steps to Ethical Decision Making. You can use them as your guide for examining all the possible options in a situation. Go through each step in order, and make sure you do this process on paper. Writing your answers can be very helpful when you’re in an emotional state about a particular decision. The writing process directs your emotions through the pen or the pencil onto the paper, not at another human being!
1. Identify exactly what the problem is.
Where’s the dilemma? Where does it stem from? Who is involved in it? Write down everything that’s part of the problem.
2. Identify the goal.
What’s your goal in solving this problem? What do you want to happen? Is your goal total customer satisfaction? Peace in the workplace? Your kids’ happiness and success? Whatever it is, write down the goal.
3. Brainstorm as many alternative solutions as you can.
Don’t think logically, and don’t let practicality get in your way. Just list as many solutions for this situation as you possibly can. You can always get rid of impractical ideas later. But unless you have a wide variety of alternative solutions to examine, you can’t really get clear on exactly where you want to go.
4. List the facts—what you know, and what you don’t know.
What do you know about this situation? Equally important, write down anything you don’t know and need to find out before you can make a decision. This may entail asking other people, other companies, other entities for their input, so you can have all the information you need to make the best possible choice.
5. Identify the people who will be affected by this decision and the principles involved.
Who in your company will be affected by this decision? Which of your customers? Who in your family and/or your community? List every person and entity affected. Then make a second list of the principles involved in the decision. On what basis is this decision being made? Is it the company’s mission statement? The value statement? Your personal code of ethics? Customer satisfaction? The bottom line? What are the key values and principles involved in making this decision?
6. Lists the risks and the benefits of each solution.
For each solution, write down the risks inherent in using this particular option. What are the possible costs to you, your co-workers, your company? Next to the risks, list the benefits for each solution as well. Be thorough; make sure you list as many risks and benefits as you can for each possible solution.
7. List the importance of each solution and the likelihood it will happen.
How important to you, your company, or your community, is the choice that will be made? And looking at each alternative solution, what are the chances that it will come to pass? What is the chance you will lose the customer? What is the chance this solution will cause your company to downsize and people will lose their jobs as a result? What is the chance the market will shift? Weigh each solution carefully. What’s the importance of the choice, and what are the chances it will happen?
8. List your motives for choosing each solution.
From your perspective as CEO, sales manager, head of sales, parent, friend—whatever the case might be—what would be your reasons for choosing this particular option? List your motives for each solution you’ve created.
9. List your priorities and preferences.
If you had your way, how would you like this whole thing to work out? What’s your priority when it comes to this decision?
10. Now, looking at your answers to #1–9, make the decision.
Keeping everything you’ve written in mind, make the decision that seems to suit the needs of the situation. Give it your very best shot—after all, our best is the best we can do.
Following these ten steps helps us to use reason more than emotion when it comes to the tough moments in our lives. The chances of making a better decision after some clear reflection are much, much higher.