Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Objectivity and the ethical dimension of organisational decision-making

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When making decisions, some people follow a structured process that involves gathering data, identifying options and analysing them to arrive at a decision. Others prefer an approach in which they seek to understand the diversity of perspectives on the issue and then attempt to synthesise a decision based on their understanding. To be sure these are stereotypes and, like all stereotypes, are somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, most decision-makers in organisations fall into one of these categories, at least as far as their preferred decision-making mode is concerned.  Of course, people may change from one mode to another, depending on the situation. For example, a person who is predominantly an objective decision maker in his or her professional life  might not be so objective when it comes to making personal decisions.

The differences between the two approaches roughly mirrors the divide between those who believe in an objective reality and those who believe that reality, or at least our perception of it, is a subjective matter.  This is akin to the difference between CP Snow’s Two Cultures: the scientists and the artists.  At the risk of making a gross generalisation, those who have a scientific or technical background tend to fall into the first category whereas those who lean towards the arts or humanities tend to fall into the other. Like all generalisations this one is, again, not strictly correct, but I think it is fair to say that a person’s training does have an influence on what they deem as the right way to make decisions.

The physicist and polymath Heinz von Foerster  summed this up nicely when he noted that the difference between the two types of decision-makers is akin to the differences between discoverers and inventors.  The objective decision-maker (the discoverer) attempts to discover the objectively correct decision based on what he or she believes to be true. On the other hand, the subjective decision-maker (the inventor) constructs or creates the decision based on facts and opinion (or even emotion) rather than facts alone.

The conventional view of decision making in organisations – that decisions should be made on the basis of facts – does not recognize this difference.  To be sure, matters that can be decided based on facts should be made on the basis of facts.  For example, a decision regarding the purchase of equipment can (often) be made based on predetermined criteria.The problem, however, is that most important decisions in organisations do not fall into this category – they have wicked elements that cannot be resolved by facts because the “facts” themselves are ambiguous. Unfortunately, decision-makers often do not understand the difference between the two types of decision problems.  A common symptom of this lack of understanding is that when confronted with a wicked decision problem, many decision-makers feel compelled to clothe their reasoning and choices in a garb of (false) objectivity.

The above is not news to observers and scholars of organisational life – see this post, for example. However, a not-so-well-appreciated dimension to the objective/subjective debate on decision-making is that wicked decision problems invariably have an ethical dimension. I elaborate on this briefly below.

In a paper on ethics and cybernetics, von Foerster noted that the objective approach to decision making is but a means of avoiding responsibility. In his words:

…objectivity requires that the properties of an observer be left out of any descriptions of his (sic) observations. With the essence of observing (namely the processes of cognition) having been removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine with the notion of responsibility successfully juggled away.

Objectivity…and other devices [such as rules and processes] are all derivations of a choice between a pair of in-principle undecidable questions [See Note 1] which are:

“Am I apart from the universe?”

or

“Am I a part of the universe?”

Although von Foerster may be accused overblown rhetoric in the quote, he raises a critical question that we all ought to ask ourselves when confronted with an undecidable issue:

When making this decision, am I going to avoid involvement (and responsibility) by hiding behind rules or processes, or am I going to take full responsibility for it regardless of the outcome?

An honest answer will reveal that such decisions are invariably made on ethical grounds rather than objective ones. Indeed, the decisions we make in our professional lives tell us more about ourselves than we might be willing to admit.


[Note 1] 

An undecidable question is one that cannot be decided on logical grounds alone – a wicked problem by another name. See my post on wickedness, undecidability and the metaphysics of organizational decision making for more on this point.


Written by K

January 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] direction of Big Consulting, but that might involve some discomfort for yourself. This makes your wicked problem an ethical one.  I suspect this is why you’re having a hard time going with the “quit” […]

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  2. […] it is most often taught and talked about in a very superficial way. The reality, however, is that the resolution of most wicked problems involves ethical considerations rather than logic and rationa……and this is something that many people do not understand. It isn’t about doing things right, […]

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