By Fr Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, PhD

The Complexity and Rapidity of Decision-Making and the Failure to Integrate Ethical Reflection into It

August 14, 2008

Most business professionals are acutely aware of the fact that decision-making within our highly technological and multi-layered organizations has become extraordinarily complex and rapid. Computer access, email, the internet, conference calls, integrated systems, and other technological advances, though incredibly positive in their capacity to promote communication, growth, access to resources, and the opening of new opportunities, has also increased the pressure on executives to act more quickly within evermore complex situations.

In order to create sufficient time and psychic space to deal with this new pressure, contemporary leaders have incorporated two habits into their “decision-making” apparatus: 1) narrowing the number of factors impinging upon decisions in order to accommodate the short amount of time available for them, and 2) the distinction between so-called “hard factors” and “soft factors” (of which ethics is considered a soft factor which can be eliminated from the narrowed range of decision variables).

In my view, ethics became a “soft factor” because of the above trends toward personalism and toleration (away from rules-based ethics). Because of this, some leaders caricatured ethics as “warm and fuzzy,” which undermined and insulted the discipline. Perhaps worse, it made ethically oriented leaders feel soft, inferior, lesser negotiators, less loyal to the organization, and therefore (ironically), guilty.

Many leaders felt that they were imposing more on their people than other leaders; that they were creating an uneven playing field for their employees; that they were creating a hostile work environment rather than a trusting one. Truly good leaders created an atmosphere of personalism and toleration without a feeling of compliance, negativity, and guilt.

Now add the exigencies of increased competitiveness from international companies (who may not see ethics the same way as US companies), from mega-mergers and huge conglomerates, and from the continual threat of being left behind technologically, and one can understand why an atmosphere of looking for shortcuts, indeed, even cutting corners seemed to be the best way to protect one’s organization and its stakeholders.

Not only had rules-based ethics begun to disappear, it almost seemed unethical to apply these principles in a business atmosphere which seemed to be overcomplicated or even undermined by them. The stage was set for top leaders (including boards of directors) to ignore intentionally what almost seemed commonplace in the past, and to do everything, absolutely everything (no holds barred) to give their organization competitive advantage in an increasingly complex, international, fast-paced, mega-merging world.