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How to Make Useful Decisions About Everyday Work Problems


We all have to make tough decisions sometimes. Depending upon your role and level in your organization, you may be faced with difficult choices regarding hiring and firing other people, or setting budgets, or crafting policies that affect everyone’s experience at work. Often enough, somebody affected by your decisions won’t like them. The solution? Learn when to focus on utilitarian decision-making, and you’ll be able to make better choices.

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Put on Your Poker Face to Make Utilitarian Decisions

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Utilitarian decisions are those that focus on the end result, and not the means of getting there. For example, in philosophy class you may be asked a question such as, “You need to save the lives of a group of people. If you kill one of the five, the other four will live. Otherwise, all five are likely to die. What do you do?” It sounds harsh, but the utilitarian decision is considered killing one of the four. Fortunately, this is a classroom exercise and life is seldom so harsh. Most utilitarian decisions don’t have such high stakes, but you get the idea. 

Recent research indicates that in order to make the most utilitarian decision, you need to set your own feelings aside. A Harvard University study, Poker-faced Morality: Concealing Emotions Leads to Utilitarian Decision Making found that people who suppress their emotions and affect while in a decision-making role are more likely to make a utilitarian decision.

Emotions and Ethics Go Together

The same research found that people who feel and express their emotions while in a decision-making role are more likely to make deontological decisions. A deontological decision is one that applies basic rules of ethics or morality regardless of outcome. People who make decisions in this manner are more likely to apply a blanket idea of right and wrong to their choices. 

Time and Place for Everything

Perhaps there is a time and place for both modes of decision-making in the workplace. Sometimes difficult decisions need to be made. For example, let’s say that a worker’s behavior has been problematic for an extended period of time. It is up to you to decide whether to let this person go or give them yet another chance for them to improve.

If you set your emotions aside and handle the situation without a lot of emotional affect, it will be easier to make the utilitarian decision that will likely be best for the company, and easier to have the difficult conversation. In this scenario, it is likely the most utilitarian decision to fire this worker, because in the long run replacing him with someone without behavioral problems is better for the company.

However, rules of ethics may dictate that everyone be given one, two, or three chances to improve. Let’s say this employee was given one chance, and improvement was short-lived. What the Harvard University study showed is that if you do not suppress or regulate your emotions, you are more likely to make the arguably deontological decision to give the worker another chance to improve. In the long run, it may not be the best for the company, but it feels like the right thing to do.

This is just one example, and some workers respond well to constructive criticism and do improve their behavior. The takeaway from this research is to be aware of how being emotional or setting aside emotions affects decision-making. Keep that in mind next time you have a difficult decision to make at work.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think you make utilitarian or deontological decisions at work? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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