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    Decision Making: Some initial observations

    Decision Making and Guidance Practice: Some initial observations and ideas

     By Peter Beven

     Origins and Key Features

    Decision making has always been a fundamental human activity. 

    At some stage within the career guidance planning process, decisions are made. The decision in some cases might be to make far reaching changes, or perhaps the decision might be not to change anything. In some cases, little change might ensue, but a decision has still been made, even if the result, having considered the consequences, is not to change. 

     As a guide it is important to take into account that individual participants vary a great deal in terms of how they make decisions, what factors are important to them, how ready they are to make them and how far participants are prepared to live with uncertain outcomes.  

    The traditional way within guidance to handle decision making is to see it as a rational, almost linear process. This is illustrated by the Janis and Mann model exemplified in the practical exercise example mentioned below involving balance sheets. The aim is to encourage a rational approach to planning for the future. Typically this involves an evaluation of available options with a look at the pros and cons of each, taking account of the participant’s personal circumstances.

    In practice of course the process of making a decision is influenced by all sorts of things. In everyday terms the decision making may in fact be driven by the irrational, the “quick fix” solution and in some cases, prejudicial ideas, perhaps based upon ingrained or outdated ideas.

     Gerard Egan describes this as the “shadow side” of decision making. De Bono’s thinking hats exercise (see below) attempts to factor in some of the emotional and other factors linked to decision making.

     As individuals we can vary in the style of decision making we use. For some decisions we might take a “logical” approach based upon the linear thinking mentioned above. For some decisions we might make a “no thought” decision, either because the matter is so routine it doesn’t require any thought, or in some occasions just to make a quick fix so we don’t have to think about it any more. Sometimes participants in guidance interviews may talk about their realisation that they should have looked into a decision further before rushing into one course of action. Some individuals employ a hesitant style of decision making, where decisions are delayed as long as possible, whereas others may make a choice based upon an emotional response, what feels right subjectively. Finally some participants might make decisions that can be classified as compliant; that is based upon the perceived expectations of what other people want. A key role in guidance is to identify how a participant has made previous professional development decisions- and whether the approach seems to have worked for them. Might there be other ways of deciding that lead to better decisions?


    Using Decision making exercises in a Guidance Setting

     There is a broad range of tools to aid the decision making process within a professional development discussion. Here are two introductory examples. Further examples are available via the references and web sites below.

     Balance sheet


    In its simplest form this consists of two columns representing two choices. The advantages and disadvantages of each choice can simply be listed. Sometimes the very act of writing down pros and cons can bring clarity.


    Sometimes subdividing the headings into Advantages for me, Advantages for others, disadvantages for me, disadvantages for others can yield a richer analysis. Janis and Mann suggest this process.

     A slightly more sophisticated use of balance sheets might involve the participant completing the sheet as above initially, then the adviser producing a list of other suggested factors that the individual may not have considered at first. These can either be included, or ignored by the participant.

    An example of a simple balance sheet



    Option One - Staying as I am              

    Option Two - Change

    Advantages for me









    Disadvantages for me








    Advantages for others







    Disadvantages for others









    Six thinking Hats

    This tool was created by Edward de Bono in his book "6 Thinking Hats".

    How to Use the Tool:

    To use Six Thinking Hats to improve the quality of the participant’s decision-making; look at the decision "wearing" each of the thinking hats in turn.

    Each "Thinking Hat" is a different style of thinking. These are explained below:

    White Hat:
    With this thinking hat, the participant is encouraged to focus on the data available. Look at the information they have about themselves and see what they can learn from it. Look for gaps in your knowledge, and either try to fill them or take account of them.
    This is where the participant is encouraged to analyze past experience, work roles etc. and try to learn from this

    Red Hat:
    Wearing the red hat, the participant looks at the decision using intuition, gut reaction, and emotion. The idea is also to encourage the participant to try to think how other people will react emotionally to the decision being made, and try to understand the intuitive responses of people who may not fully know your reasoning.

    Black Hat:
    When using black hat thinking, look at things pessimistically, cautiously and defensively. Try to see why ideas and approaches might not work. This is important because it highlights the weak points in a plan or course of action. It allows the participant to eliminate them, alter your approach, or prepare contingency plans to counter problems that might arise. Black Hat thinking can be one of the real benefits of using this technique within professional development planning, as sometimes participants can get so used to thinking positively that often they cannot see problems in advance, leaving them under-prepared for difficulties.

    Yellow Hat:
    The yellow hat helps you to think positively. It is the optimistic viewpoint that helps you to see all the benefits of the decision and the value in it, and spot the opportunities that arise from it. Yellow Hat thinking helps you to keep going when everything looks gloomy and difficult. 

    Green Hat:
    The Green Hat stands for creativity. This is where you can develop creative solutions to a problem. It is a freewheeling way of thinking, in which there is little criticism of ideas. 

    Blue Hat:
    The Blue Hat stands for process control. This is the hat worn by people chairing meetings. When running into difficulties because ideas are running dry, they may direct activity into Green Hat thinking. When contingency plans are needed, they will ask for Black Hat thinking, and so on. 

    You can use Six Thinking Hats in guidane discussions. It is a way of encouraging participants to look at decision making from different perspectives. This can be done either metaphorically -as in “imagine you are wearing the white hat...” - or by having cards each with the name of the hat and a brief description of the “way of looking at things” that the hat brings with it. The cards can be shuffled and dealt to the participant in turn. By doing this the guide is encouraging the participant to consider a decision from a range of perspectives


    Key texts


    Gelatt, H. B. and Gelatt, C. (2003) Creative Decision Making: Using Positive Uncertainty Boston: Thomson House  


    Additional texts


    De Bono E. (2000) Six Thinking Hats London: Penguin Books

    Egan, G. (2007) The Skilled Helper 8th edition Brooks/ Cole

    Kahneman, H., Slovic, P. and Twersky, A. (eds.) (1999) Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

    Janis, I. L. and Mann, L. (1979) Decision making London: Macmillan Publications Plous, S. (1993) The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw Hill


    Useful Web Sites:

    The Mind Tools web site contains a wide range of exercises to help with decision making: