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Why Managers Can’t Make Good Judgments

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“Managers get paid to make judgments. Human judgment stinks. Add those two statements up and you’ve got trouble.”

Those are the words of Tom Peters, legendary speaker, author, and management consultant, in a classic column titled Judging Jugement: Ouch! Peters runs through a series of examples, and then concludes:

If outrageously poor judgment is pervasive, perhaps it’s one more reason for managers to empower lots of people to “get on with it.” Though the judgment of those empowered is not likely to be much good either, they are closer to the action, deal with slightly less complex events and receive less distorted information. At a minimum, such a strategy increases the number of people who try stuff. That’s not a very scintillating solution, but it may be better than relying on the plans and commands of a small number of self-deluded “experts.”

Management and Decision Making

© Flickr user Tim Evanson

The first question might be: how is it possible that people—especially experts—are terrible at making judgment calls?

The reason lies in social psychology. It turns out that the way a problem is presented to us influences our objectivity. Peters gives a good example:

Confronting data that contradicts our opinion hardens rather than softens that opinion. Almost any study that supports our views is seen as more convincing and better done than studies which refute it.

A second question might be: If our ability to decide what’s best is easily influenced by psychology, what should we do?

The answer is to design decision-making processes with these biases in mind. For example, the Israel Defense Forces have a challenging consensus model in which once a conclusion is reached, a group has the responsibility of researching and defending the opposite perspective.

But a broader point might be that basic problems in business improvement are difficult to resolve. A Tom Peters article from 1991 (!) still rings true today, decades later. If we want to get better at making decisions and managing people, we must accept that what we often assume to be correct just isn’t so at all.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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