Trouble Making Decisions? Are You Sure?

Last Updated Oct 7, 2010 10:25 PM EDT

Trouble Making DecisionsThe most popular article on wsj.com right now is "Why So Many People Can't Make Decisions." The headline hooked me, so I read it. Apparently, your ability to make decisions, among other things, is related to whether you see the world in black and white or shades of gray. Well, I'm not buying it.

The story starts out reasonably enough:

Some people meet, fall in love and get married right away. Others can spend hours in the sock aisle at the department store, weighing the pros and cons of buying a pair of wool argyles instead of cotton striped.
Okay, so far, so good. But then it goes on to essentially split all of us into two distinct types of decision-makers: those who see the world in black and white, and those who see the world in shades of gray. Apparently, according to various researchers and studies, which group you're in is determined by your level of ambivalence.

Now, call me crazy, but the last thing I want managers to be feeling when making a decision is ambivalence. And yet, the researchers say that people who think in shades of gray, who see the world as the complicated mess it really is, have a high degree of ambivalence. And that's a sign of maturity. Wow. What a crock of screwed-up, oversimplified academic nonsense that is.

First, I agree that seeing the world as it is, in shades of gray, is a good thing, a sign of maturity, and all that. I can pretty much chart my own personal growth from youth, where I saw things in very black and white terms, to mature adulthood, where I view most things that matter in shades of gray. But that's got nothing, nada, zero, zilch to do with ambivalence.

You know, when I'm standing there in front of the sock drawer in the morning, trying to figure out what in the world I should put in between my feet and shoes, that my friends, is ambivalence. And that sure as hell isn't me seeing the world in shades of gray. I truly could care less.

And yet, when I need to make an important business, management, or strategic decision in a world full of crazy tradeoffs, I can make it as fast and decisively as anyone, knowing full well it's all about shades of gray. And there's no ambivalence associated with that whatsoever.

The article goes on to say that "people who see the world as black and white tend to -- speak their mind, make quick decisions, and be less likely to consider others' points of view." Well, that describes me in my youth perfectly. And while today I see the world in shades of gray and very much consider others' points of view, I also speak my mind and make quick decisions. And I've never been ambivalent, then or now. Except about socks.

I can go on and on, but I think what's happening here is the researchers are getting confused between personality types and levels of maturity. I mean, anyone who doesn't get that most things in life, and business too, aren't black and white, is either delusional or just hasn't grown up yet.

Moreover, understanding complex tradeoffs and digesting different points of view are critical in decision-making. And so is the ability to make those decisions quickly and decisively. And those two sets of qualities should and do reside in the same successful manager or executive ... with no ambivalence in sight.
The researchers would see that as a conflict, but it's clearly not.

Bottom line: I don't know if it's the researchers or the Journal reporter, but somebody isn't seeing the real world very clearly, in my opinion. Effective managers must be able to see the world as it really is, in shades of gray, with all its tradeoffs and conflicts, and still make quick, critical decisions. And that's got nothing to do with how long it takes you to get married -- or buy socks.

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Image CC 2.0 courtesy Flickr user Irargerich