Some Consolation for the Indecisive


Modern life is full of decisions – so just how do we know what we want? Karin Brunsson explores the complexities of choice.

It is a commonplace observation that people in today’s affluent societies are frequently frustrated; in their private as in their professional lives. There are simply too many options – too many things to buy, places to visit, or markets to explore. There are too many decisions to make, and it is highly uncertain what the right decision is. It is extra frustrating that when making decisions you create identity – your own, or that of your organisation. People expect (or so you believe) that you choose clothes, hairstyle, glasses and other accessories in a conscientious manner because you want to signal a certain kind of personality. The personality of your organisation depends on the logo you choose, the latest marketing campaign, the behaviour of the sales staff you recruited.

What is the right decision? For whom should your decisions be right, and when?

Some would argue that an increasing uncertainty makes decision-making difficult and frustrating. In globalised society there are too many interwoven actors – large organisations that insistently seek to impress you with their unique products and offers. But your main problem is probably to find out what you want. It is much easier to know what you don’t want – after you made your decision – than to be sure of what you want to achieve beforehand. How can I know what I want before I see what I say? said sociologist Karl Weick.

As an individual and as a member, or manager, of an organisation people expect you to rely on clear goals when choosing one available option. People expect you to know what you want and behave rationally – but the idea of rationality takes the goals for granted. Goals are thrust upon the intelligent man, said organisation theorist James March.

How do I know what I want?

In our book on decisions, we describe rational decision-making as a somewhat utopian ideal, which people refer to when they give reasons for a certain decision. (“I went to Thailand, because I needed to charge my batteries.” “The firm’s sustainability mission led to these investments in Brazil.”) Before a decision is made, there are other methods – you may apply the logic of appropriateness and decide to follow rules: laws and regulations, or norms for how certain people should behave, or rules of your own making (“I stick to the same supplier no matter what”). Or you imitate others and behave like they do as parents, students, successful managers, or whatever. Yet another decision-making mode is to experiment – you decide to change something – your hairstyle or the firm’s investment policy – and see how it turns out.

In all these instances, you may actually find out what you want, in which case you are in a better position to make rational decisions later on. Or else you continue to make decisions in non-rational ways. It is not morally wrong.

But although modern, and affluent, life seems to be replete with frustrating decision-making situations, there is often the option of deciding not to decide. You risk being characterised as a poor parent or manager, but this may turn out a wise strategy, nevertheless. Let others make the controversial decisions. Or wait and see – maybe your urgent problem will fade away on its own account.

Life is what happens while you are planning something else. Give life a chance. Don’t make any unnecessary decisions.


Karin Brunsson is Associate Professor at Uppsala University and co-author (with Nils Brunsson) of Decisions, The Complexities of Individual and Organizational Decision-Making. out now


Read Chapter 1 Decisions free on Elgaronline

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