Who is making your decisions?

A local Sheikh & a government Minister face-to-face in Socotra, Yemen

Who is the real decision-maker in this picture? It’s a question that fascinates me.

Admittedly, I’m pretty independent. But I get that I can’t make all my own decisions. As a young adult, I accepted that some choices, like curfews, would be made by my parents.

On the flip-side, as a politician, it was a serious responsibility making policy choices on behalf of constituents.

In my corporate life, decision-making wasn’t as clear-cut. Authority, influence, persuasion, group-think and coercion all reared their heads when a critical decision needed to be made.

Decision-making power is morphing

There’s a big shift happening. Power is spreading. It’s easier to get. The Occupy movements, the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks, even the environmental advocates who overwhelm regulatory processes to shut down oil pipelines in Canada are proof.

And, if you have formal authority, it’s never been harder to use.

President Trump bemoans this fact daily! Techniques to block the use of power are gaining strength: veto, diversion, interference, foot-dragging, vexatious litigation.

Social license can be more powerful than the rule of law.

Obviously, the concentration of power in the hands of a few isn’t good; it’s tyranny. On the other end of the spectrum, overly-diffused power can lead to chaos.

In the 1930s, Winston Churchill and George Orwell feared abuse of authority.

And now there’s a new trend emerging. Moises Naim, former editor in chief of Foreign Policy, Venezuelan trade minister, and author of The End of Power predicts: 

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiatives but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness….And the more slippery power becomes, the more our lives become governed by short-term incentives and fears, and the less we can chart our actions and plan for the future.”

How can you find approaches that give decision-makers enough power to be effective, but not too much?

Too much tyranny 

Mtwara, Tanzania

Look into the face of the woman in the centre of this photo. In 2007, I was drawn to this face in a village outside of Mtwara, Tanzania, an isolated community on the Indian Ocean.

A western energy company discovered natural gas in the shallow offshore waters, built a natural gas plant nearby, and promised Tanzania’s energy-starved citizens affordable  electricity. That didn’t happen.  I was brought in to diffuse tensions after the decisions had been made.

Without consulting locals, the Tanzanian government used their formal authority to  designate traditional fishing grounds a “maritime preserve.”

For villagers in Mtwara, this moratorium on fishing was life-altering.  Men and boys who provided the villagers’ food found themselves without livelihood and purpose.

Using ‘Social Engineering 101’, the western energy company invested in local communities by training women to cultivate crops.  The social order was upended. To their credit, these women assumed their new role while remaining committed to preserving the dignity of their husbands, fathers and sons.

Mtwara, Tanzania

Driving dissent underground

I’ve been at hundreds of decision-making tables where governments, investors, advocates, experts, indigenous leaders and occasionally local citizens claim to speak for others. They vouch, everyone is pretty happy with the proposed decision, let’s get on with it.

With few exceptions, these decision-makers are smart and well-intended. But, whenever someone claims to speak for another, I’m wary.

Only kings, presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’. (Mark Twain)

We’ve all pushed decisions. We’ve all shut down dissent. Why do we do this?

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer, explains:

“Deep within me there is an instinct even deeper than fight or flight…as a species, we are profoundly impatient with tensions of any sort, and we want to resolve every one of them as quickly as we can.”

When we cut exploration short, we deprive ourselves of the chance to find a better way. By allowing opposing ideas to commingle, a new vision can emerge.

When we don’t listen to dissent, we drive the tension underground. Potentially, we create an embittered minority who devote themselves to undermining the decision we thought we had made.

Getting dignity to the decision-making table

The odds that a decision actually gets implemented are enhanced when people feel like they have been heard.

Donna Hicks, author of Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, encourages us to get dignity to the decision-making table.

  1. By including those affected by a decision
  2. By creating a safe space for people to speak without fear of retribution or humiliation
  3. By actively listening to what others have to say
  4. By being fair when speaking for others
  5. By not taking credit for the ideas of another
  6. By assuming good intentions
  7. By recognizing the autonomy of others

Some people scoff at these “squishy” ideas.

Sounds like social licence run amok! Not feasible in the real world!

Of course, every impacted person can’t be consulted on every decision. We’d end up with the paralysis that Naim cautioned against. We’d never get another infrastructure project built in Canada!

So I would add one more item to Hicks’ list:

  1. By accepting a decision once it’s been legitimately and transparently made, even if you don’t agree

In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor explains how we accept that our personal preferences may be overridden in a democratic society:

Wrong as this decision is in its content, I have to go along with it as an expression of the will, or interest, of this people to whom I belong.

That also means, once critical voices have been heard and a decision is made, techniques to hijack legitimate power–abuse of veto, vexatious litigation, diversion, interference, and foot-dragging–need to be called out.

Dignity in action

Socotra, Yemen

Within a grove of Dragon’s Blood trees, the Yemeni Minister of Public Health and Population and a local Sheikh, the meeting host, sit face-to-face on a quilt.

The military are told to put down their guns.

The Minister leans forward to listen; rarely speaking. In attendance, the Minister’s healthcare experts, local faith leaders, villagers–men and women and children.

After pleasantries, the crisis to be resolved is put on the table. How could this remote island improve the health of young mothers and their babies? Girls getting married as “child brides” and their undeveloped bodies were unable to safely bear babies.

From my point of view, utterly heartbreaking.

Socotra, Yemen

The Minister of Health had the power to unilaterally set healthcare policy.  Yemen is a military dictatorship. Yet he chose to travel to Socotra and listen closely.

The policy decisions made reflected this. They agreed to better healthcare during pregnancy and education on birth-control choices.

Most critically, local faith leaders undertook to use their influence to condemn personal decisions by locals to marry child brides, the root cause of the crisis.

Policy decisions can limit or protect personal decision-making

In Alberta Legislature, politicians are debating government policy on how to create safe havens in schools for students evaluating their sexuality. Advocates and parents also claim to speak for students.

A decision about expressing one’s sexuality is profoundly personal. Youth who haven’t shared their sexual identity with their families can be vulnerable. Preserving a student’s ability to decide when and how to come out is protecting that student’s very decision-making power as an individual.

Understanding your power

All of us hold power in decision-making, formal and informal.

We may have top-down authority to make a decision. We may have the expertise and credibility to influence a decision, to offer up new ideas. We may have the legitimacy to constructively dissent to a decision that affects us directly. We may be motivated to block implementation of a decision that we don’t like.

Making or influencing or blocking a decision that affects others is a big deal.

It’s a choice, a skill and a responsibility.

Marrying dignity to decision-making is an investment not only in the humanity of our choices, but also in the potential of getting something done, of actually moving forward.

Obviously, concentrating decision-making power in the hands of a few authoritarians isn’t what we want. Nor do we want power so diffused that decisions aren’t made or aren’t implemented.

There are approaches that give decision-makers enough power to be effective, but not too much. Find them! Create them!

Donna Kennedy-Glans, November 9th 2017

P.S. Call me a big nerd, but I keep a decision-making matrix in my wallet. Want to know more? Here are links to a few articles that may be of interest for you hard-core types.

3 thoughts on “Who is making your decisions?

  1. Today the Calgary Sun gave Jason Kenney the right to reverse his initial decision to out poor defenseless children against their wishes. The entire province was disgusted by this man! In my opinion this man probably saw the absurdness of his initial words to have mandatory outing of children the minute they became members of a GSA. I couldn’t believe it when he said, in writing: We oppose mandatory notification of parents regarding the involvement of students in GSA’s. His original impulsive words made this an issue and forced the present NDP government to protect the children against Jason Kenney just in case he happened to get into a position of authority over GSA children. The now reverse position was of course in my opinion only decided so that Kenney could oppose Bill 24. As a Centralist Progressive Conservative we do not take the crusade of this man lightly but abhor his reversal as only the ranting and ravings of someone desparate to get into power who can just as easily reverse that decision and make our children vulnerable again! No one is sold on the supposed view of this man in the Calgary Sun as being anything but political posturing.

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