Each of us has situations we find ourselves in or opportunities presented to us wherein we need to make decisions. We also find ourselves in situations where we rely on others to make decisions on our behalf. And while many things contribute to effective decision making aptitude and decision making ability one principle for decision making stands out. When a decision maker feels the pain, better decisions are made.

When a decision maker feels the pain, better decisions are made.

Let’s look at this quickly from the perspective of a four quadrant framework. You can see in the quadrants below on the Y axis is our level of pain we feel and on the X axis is our level of decision making authority we have. In some situations the pain we feel can be a choice, but the decision-making authority we have is influenced by factors outside of our control and vice versa. Regardless, this four-quadrant framework will help us visualize the principle I am talking about.

Quadrant 2 (upper right):

Skipping to the point of this post, Quadrant 2 is where optimal decisions are made for the benefit of all those involved. Having a combination of high pain and high decision making authority, decision makers are poised to make decisions that mitigate or eliminate pain in their lives and the lives of others who are affected by that pain. In this quadrant decision makers have the greatest potential and capacity to demonstrate empathy (defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others) and the determination to right whatever wrongs have been felt by them and others.

Quadrant 4 (lower right):

If we briefly look at Quadrant 4, these decision makers are unapproachable, insensitive, and are not compassionate. They are disconnected from the daily challenges and ongoing pain points experienced by others. They simply can’t relate and are incapable of extending empathy. They, therefore, lack a determination to do anything substantial to solve problems in any meaningful way for others.

Quadrant 1 (upper left):

If we briefly look at Quadrant 1, these individuals are those who typically are team members and subordinates to those in decision making positions. They are the front line workers and associates who often take the brunt of organizational challenges and are the first to feel situational pain points and yet are not in an organizational position in the business to make decisions to reduce or eliminate those pain points. This often leads to frustration, disengagement, job dissatisfaction, and relationship challenges.

Quadrant 3 (lower left):

Finally, I suppose those who don’t have any decision making authority, but also experience little to no pain (Quadrant 3), may live in some sort of “ignorant bliss” as they go about their day-to-day with little responsibility and numb to most forms of organizational, situational, or relationship pain. I can’t imagine how dull or unfulfilling this quadrant could be. Having said that, my guess is some live in this category for fear of evolving into Quadrant 1 or being acted upon by decision makers in Quadrant 4.

If the pain principle is true, and, in my experience, I believe it is, then exceptional decision makers are those who find consistent opportunities to feel pain points (Quadrant 2) in their community, organization, team, and relationships. High Pain, and High Decision-Making Authority leads to the greatest potential decision-making aptitude (defined as a natural ability to do something well).

This post is not about how to become a decision maker. That part is assumed to have already happened in your life. This post is about how to make good decisions once you have already arrived at decision-making authority in certain parts of your life professionally or personally. Once you have some decision-making authority you need to make good decisions. You do this by getting to Quadrant 2 in the framework. To get you to, and keep you in, Quadrant 2 you need to feel some pain points. As companions to the pain principle there are four principle corollaries (defined as a supporting principle that flows from an already established principle) that will help you get to and stay in Quadrant 2.

Let’s focus on Quadrant 2. Decision makers in this quadrant build credibility with those they associate with, understand circumstances in ways others don’t, behave in ways that engender empathy, and put themselves in situations that maximize perspective to make good decisions.

This doesn’t represent a comprehensive list of companion principles that will help you make good decisions, but it does include four areas I often observe lacking in individuals who are known to not be great people to work for or associate with. Let’s take a look at each of these corollaries individually.

“It is a greater compliment to be trusted than to be loved.” 

– George MacDonald

Credibility Corollary

Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust, talks about trust stemming from two companion characteristics: our character and our competence. Broken down further, these two characteristics include what Covey calls the four cores of credibility. They include our integrity (honesty), our intent (motives), our capabilities (skills), and our ability to deliver results. (This is an oversimplification of his book, a book which I highly recommend.) If we take it a step further, David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, calls the character side of trust the “Eulogy Virtues” or those things expressed in admiration at your funeral and placed on your gravestone. Brooks calls the competence side of trust the “Resume Virtues” or those things you might highlight on your LinkedIn professional social media profile.

Bringing this back to decision-making, a good decision maker has credibility with those for whom she or he needs to make decisions. But to build credibility, you need to spend time building trust. To build trust you need to focus on the four core areas where trustworthiness is either gained or drained. 

Eulogy virtues are hard to learn outside of yourself. You have to spend time deciding what matters most to you and what you value in your core. These are the areas of your life and psyche you are not willing to sacrifice or compromise. The things you do or don’t do because you have made up your mind to do or not do those things because of what you feel to be true, moral, and ethical. I can’t tell you what to believe, but I can tell you credibility starts with believing something that you won’t compromise on. Whether philosophically or spiritually based (or a combination of both) doesn’t necessarily matter, but you have to be able to draw something from your soul. Distilled down, you have to determine your commitment to honesty and resolve to keep your motives pure.

Resume virtues are more easily taught with the help of others. Billion dollar industries exist to help train you in skills acquisition and personal productivity. While some things are out of our control like job fit, displacement and reassignment, we can do much to improve our skill set and ability to get things done and deliver results. There are systems, programs, and applications all built and aimed to help us achieve results. However, to be brief, let me boil resume virtues down to one simple principle,  write things down in a system where you’ll see them when you need them. (more on this here) Then your eulogy virtues will kick in to actually get the stuff done you see when you need to see them. 

“Good inspiration is based on good information.”

– Russell M. Nelson

Understanding Corollary

The world we live in, the information age, is ripe with data. Big data, thick data, anecdotal data, empirical data, qualitative data, quantitative data. You get the idea. Honestly, there is no excuse for a decision maker to first, not have access to data, and second, not rely on data to help them with decision making. But, almost worse than not having access (ignorance), is not having enough access (misunderstanding) or too much access (often leading to what is termed “analysis paralysis”). 

This corollary isn’t about what type of data you need and how much of it. It is more about a pain principle corollary that you need data which can lead to information which can lead to understanding. Others have said it this way: having data leads to information which leads to knowledge which leads to wisdom (wisdom being defined as good judgement based on knowledge.) The point is, a decision maker needs to be collecting data in a variety of ways and in varying quantities to see and experience pain points in an effort to make better decisions. 

Let me give a rudimentary example. I might be getting a daily spreadsheet of all customer satisfaction complaints from the previous day. Getting a daily spreadsheet gives me data that I previously didn’t have at my disposal. There may be numerous rows of data depending on the size of my business and how bad my customer service is. With that daily spreadsheet I could then sort (or filter) the data based on the columns of fields in that dataset. Filtering a raw data spreadsheet begins to turn that data into information because I am now sorting in ways that help me pinpoint certain customer experiences and sentiments. As I sort and read the various rows of data I begin to see a story emerge about my customer experiences. That story starts to give me some knowledge about my company and how we do business. Once I know a thing or two I can begin to make judgement calls and decisions stemming from that dataset. Whether or not that decision making will be wise probably does depend; however, on other efforts I am making to triangulate the data, understand a given situation, and validate the pain point story that is emerging. (Be careful of confirmation bias. Look it up.) A daily spreadsheet might be better than no spreadsheet, but we do need to consider other factors as well.

For example, after looking at that customer experience spreadsheet, I might then find ways to interview customers for a deeper dive into what they said on a 2-minute survey. I might talk with call center agents to understand their point of view and why some customers aren’t happy. I might ask website administrators and designers why certain aspects of the website are designed the way they are. The point is, a good decision maker makes an effort to seek and digest information that helps them gain knowledge and understanding about what is actually going on. 

Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and five-time CEO said it best: “What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.” If you think of bricks being empirical or quantitative data (surveys and spreadsheets) the mortar around those bricks could be the anecdotal or qualitative data (stories and interviews). The key is to attain understanding, and that requires consistently and systemically collecting and reviewing data, information, and experiences from a variety of sources. Balance is key. Remember the astute insight from sociologist William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviors.”

– Stephen M.R. Covey

Behavior Corollary

We’ve all heard that adage actions speak louder than words. Well it’s true. Up to this point we have talked about building credibility and using various forms of data to build understanding within organizations and relationships. One way to build credibility is to behave your way into trust. Meaning talk is cheap and generally, people are very observant. We have all been in those frustrating situations where people have committed to following up on that thing, scheduling the next meeting, creating a draft of the proposal, interviewing a colleague, getting stuff done and then nothing happens. We may be one of those employees. We think to ourselves, well, my intentions were noble, but life is busy or I had other deadlines to meet, emails to read, or whatever. News flash, when it comes to feeling organizational pain points, people don’t care about your intentions; they care about your behaviors. 

What’s the saying? “People don’t care how much you know ‘till they know how much you care.” Proving how much you care comes through behavior, not through desires, intentions, or anything short of our actual actions with other people. If people can see you are trying to feel their pain through these corollaries that goes a long way even if we make occasional mistakes with our decision making. Some questions to consider: regardless of your intentions, what does your behavior look like to others?, and are you behaving in ways that support optimal decision making?

“Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse walk a mile in my shoes.”

– Elvis Presley

Situation Corollary

A good decision maker routinely puts themselves in situations that allow them to feel organizational pain. The quickest way I can describe this corollary is to share a few examples of well-known leaders. These leaders aren’t perfect, perhaps even have many flaws, but for the purposes of this post and this corollary these decision makers displayed situational awareness really well.

Walt Disney, founder of, well, all things Disney, called this “walking the park.” In the late-1950s Walt was notorious for spending his weekends within the whimsical world of Disneyland in southern California observing and interacting with park guests and employees to understand what he could never understand from his headquarters office. During one such visit, Walt asked a ride attendant what could be improved while waiting to board the next ride carriage. The ride attendant told Walt that the carriage ceilings were too low as several guests would bump their heads when getting in. Walt nodded approvingly and then proceeded to bump his own head on the ride as well.  A result of one of these park visits facilitated a complete redesign of one of the major Disneyland ride attractions. 

Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores, followed this same corollary by visiting his stores unannounced around the country observing and learning about local store innovations he could take back and implement in other stores around the country. In one such visit he saw one associate saying “hello” to everyone who came into the store. When he asked the worker what he was doing the employee indicated that his main purpose was to discourage shoplifters from leaving the store with unpaid merchandise. Standing at the entrance/exit greeting people seemed to effectively deter theft. Sam, apparently, was delighted by this innovation that would affect the bottom line and shared the idea with other stores around the country. While not widely practiced in stores today, this had been a hallmark of the Wal-Mart stores around the country for decades.

Jeff Bezos, CEO at Amazon, followed this same situation corollary when he worked directly with a customer service representative one day finding out that a particular coffee table Amazon was shipping out was routinely returned because it was faulty or damaged. Because of that experience Bezos implemented what is traditionally called the Andon Cord allowing any Amazon customer service employee to stop any product shipment company wide! (Look it up). Jeff felt the pain, and a company-wide change was made to remove a pain point for employees and customers.

These, and other examples large and small, illustrate the power of putting yourself in situations that allow you to feel organizational or relational pain points. If nothing else good comes from your afternoon of reading this little book try “walking the park.” You’ll be surprised how much you learn.

“Courage is knowing it might hurt and doing it anyway.  Stupidity is the same. And that’s why life is hard.”

– Jeremy Goldberg

Feeling pain is hard. It requires effort and vulnerability. It requires a significant amount of empathy and compassion and even occasionally means we will get some things wrong, but still feel pain anyway. Having said that, my experience has been that often humans find themselves lazily plodding along life’s path “self medicating” in a way and numbing themselves from the daily challenges that face us and those we work and live with. No normal person enjoys pain, and yet pain is often the way in which to improve in leaps and bounds. Recognizing that there is, in fact, a pain principle at work, and that there are specific companion principles that will help us more effectively address organizational, situational, or relational pain points is the first step to better decision-making.

featured image provided by www_slon_pics

Published by Jerrod Guddat

I love learning, collaboration, and improving workplace performance. You can usually find me reading a book or opposing points of view on the internet. I typically assume my ideas are flawed until proven otherwise. :-)

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  1. Thanks for this, Jerrod. I especially like the bricks and mortar idea; both quantitative and qualitative data are needed to understand truth and make good data-driven decisions.

    Liked by 1 person

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