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What Are Decision Styles? Part 1

Updated: Aug 24, 2018


The importance of understanding human information processing has greatly accelerated, as the focus of world society becomes information itself. The enormous strides in the technology of communication, the rise of globe spanning computer systems and the complexity of the very fabric of human endeavor has made human information processing a central issue for our times.

Yet, our understanding of how humans process information is still in a formative stage. Previously, the most common framework for analyzing intellectual processes was that of the intelligence or IQ field. The intent of this approach to human information is to assess the maximum capacity of individuals to retain information and to use information to draw accurate conclusions. While the intelligence assessment field is still very active, there are several problems that limit the utility of this field as a means of studying human information processing. In particular, most models of human intelligence assume that IQ remains fixed after individuals reach adulthood. Further, it also is commonly assumed that greater intelligence is always associated with better performance regardless of the situation in which decisions are made. In addition to making the intelligence field rather unpopular and threatening because of their elitist overtones, they also make it difficult to apply intelligence assessment techniques for training and development purposes.

More recently, an alternative approach to the study of human information processing has focused on cognitive styles. Cognitive styles are defined as acquired patterns or habits of information processing. Since styles are learned, they can change in response to varying circumstances. Furthermore, no one style is considered to be best. Research has shown that styles are effective when they meet the particular demands of a situation calling for a decision. So, different styles fit different situations.

Cognitive styles are not strongly related to intelligence. Given a normal level of intelligence, a person's style tells us how the individual's intellectual capacity can best be used. This appears to predict behavior and performance as well as, or better than, the IQ approach. Only in subnormal intelligence cases would IQ be more crucial than cognitive style.Styles of Decision MakingWithin the framework of cognitive style, we have developed the decision style model that we present in this paper. The model describes varied habits of decision-making that people acquire through experience. Making decisions is a complex process involving problem definition, information search, creativity, alternatives generation, cost/benefit analysis and reality testing. People differ markedly in how they go about these activities. Because decision-making activities play a major role in human relationships, particularly in economic and working relationships, style differences among people broadly influence human affairs, from strategy formation in large organizations to individual consumer choice.Although many factors affect human information processing, the decision style model has proven very predictive of behavior in a wide range of settings. It has been effective in matching individuals to the information demands of work, in determining training needed in information processing methods in different positions, and as a guiding framework for people anticipating changing jobs or shifting career directions.The decision style model has also proven very useful as a sales training tool, and as a framework for designing marketing strategies. The model can be used to identify the type of communication that will be most effective for a given audience. The decision style model is used also in high precision marketing efforts to target both the form and content of messages to fit the styles of specific customers or groups of consumers.Another important application of the style model is in building, developing, and training multi-function teams. Briefly, the approach here is to profile the style requirements of specific team functions and then to identify the mix of styles needed in the team. Then the style model can be used to staff and train the team in how to use the varied styles of team members to meet the requirements of different tasks and situations the team faces. This sort of application can also be used in designing organizational arrangements, such as units and communication channels. As organizations develop new forms to meet the emerging challenges of today and the future, such as the virtual organization and enterprise webs, understanding the information-processing needs and styles of people will serve as a critical tool in managing and developing relationships and roles.

The Dimensions of Style

Our particular framework for identifying decision styles is based upon a conceptual model originally developed by Michael J. Driver and then further defined by Michael Driver and Kenneth Brousseau. The current model, called the Dynamic Decision Style Model, is based on over twenty years of research into the dynamics of decision-making. The model has two basic dimensions. One dimension deals with the amount of information a person typically uses in problem solving and decision-making. The other dimension deals with focus (i.e., whether a person typically narrows decisions down to one course of action, on the one hand, or generates a variety of alternatives and options, on the other).

Information Use: Maximizers and Satisficers

People differ widely in the amount of information they use in decision-making. Some people reach conclusions on the basis of just a few facts. Others reach conclusions only after gathering and studying large amounts of information.


Figure 1: Two Styles of Information Use

Figure 1 graphically portrays the difference between the low and high information users. The curve shows that, in general, the first items of information that are considered when making a decision contribute more to one's understanding of a situation than do items of information taken into account later on, after one already knows a lot about the situation. Early on, however, one's knowledge is moving from zero to something greater.

As the fact-finding and evaluation process continues, however, the value of any one item of information begins to decrease. Its marginal utility gradually falls off until additional information produces almost no new learning about the situation.

We have found that some people stop evaluating information at the point where they feel that they have a "good enough" understanding of the situation to come up with one or more acceptable solutions. We call this mode of information use the satisficer mode. Satisficers know that there is more information that they could take into consideration, but their tendency is to want to get on with things. They prefer to keep moving, rather than "analyzing things to death."

At the other extreme is the maximizer mode. Maximizers want to be sure that they have considered all of the relevant facts, and that they have missed no important details, no matter how subtle. Their interest is in coming up with a high quality solution or in learning something new and important.

We like to use two individuals, each of whom built gigantic business empires, but who used very different styles, to illustrate the satisficer and maximizer styles: J. Paul Getty, founder of Getty Oil, and Howard Hughes, founder of Hughes Aircraft and RKO Pictures. Getty exemplified the satisficer style. He often acted swiftly, seemingly on the basis of intuition, without elaborate analyses and plans. He seemed sure that if problems popped up he would be able to deal with them later. Meanwhile, he often acted on the spur of the moment.

Hughes, as an exemplar of the maximizing style, couldn't have been more different from Getty, planning everything with intricate detail. He seemed bent on being sure that he had left no fact uncovered, no contingency unconsidered. For example, in planning his famous around the world flight, he had a device designed and constructed solely for the purpose of straining oil just in case he was forced down in Siberia where only a particular crude grade of oil was available.

We see neither the satisficer nor the maximizer mode as superior to the other. Each has its place. Satisficers have the edge over maximizers when issues are relatively simple or clear, and when time pressure is high and important deadlines must be met. They fare best when a high amount of sheer activity is needed, when there are demanding productivity and efficiency goals to be met, and in situations where -- for better or worse -- decisions must be made now.

Maximizers, on the other hand, have the edge in situations where time deadlines are relatively few and far between, and when issues are ill defined and/or complex, with many parts. They also have the edge when decisions will have important and continuing long-term consequences, as for example when laying plans for an expensive new business facility, or when making a major investment in a new product line.

Uni-Focus and Multi-Focus Decision-Makers

When faced with a situation calling for problem-solving, some people typically come up with one specific solution that they feel is the best or most feasible for the situation. We call this the uni-focus mode. Other people, faced with the same situation, will quite predictably generate a variety of alternatives or options for dealing with the situation. This is the multi-focus mode.

These two modes of decision making are depicted in Figure 2. Keep in mind that information use and focus are completely independent of each other. Maximizers and satisficers are equally likely to be uni-focus or multi-focus

Uni-focus and multi-focus differences are easy to recognize in business strategies. Multi-focus decision-makers prefer strategies that are marked by diversification, perhaps even across industries. Their inclination is to want a mix of different businesses and activities rather than a strategy strictly focusing on one product or service.

Uni-focus decision-makers prefer a strategy that concentrates on one industry or, perhaps, one product line. Too much diversification they see as distracting and detrimental to effectiveness. They want to have a clear and definite focus.

Focus differences between people are a major source of tension. Differences in information use affect interpersonal relationships, too. Satisficers tend to feel impatient with maximizers. Maximizers feel that their satisficing co-workers are hasty or impulsive. However, focus differences are more likely to erupt in outright conflict.

As a case in point, some of the very early research on decision styles studied relationships between college or university roommates. The research showed that focus similarities and differences among college roommates had a greater impact on how well they got along with each other than did similarities and differences in social class backgrounds, college majors and any other interests and hobbies. Can you see why?

Uni-focus decision-makers tend to have very strong views about how things ought to be done. Faced with any situation, they usually have a very specific criterion in mind, such as cost, quality, or fairness, by which they will evaluate any potential solution. So, they usually will find a solution that stacks up best according to their criterion or goal.

Multi-focus thinkers, on the other hand, often use many criteria to evaluate potential solutions. They tend to have many goals. So, whereas one solution may fit some criteria very well, another course of action may fit other criteria better. Consequently, they are more open to alternatives and are more conditional in their thinking.

This conditional way of thinking rubs uni-focus decision-makers the wrong way. To them, it appears as though their multi-focus associates are confused, wishy-washy, lacking in values, or simply “flakey." On the other hand, the strong, highly focused views of the uni-focus people strike the multi-focus thinkers as being rigid, narrow, unyielding, and dogmatic. When the tension escalates, these rather polite descriptors give way to even more colorful adjectives!

But, here again, neither focus mode has an absolute edge on the other. In situations where there literally is a best solution, the uni-focus decision-makers fare better. They do well also in situations where following specific procedures, or decision rules, is required to arrive at conclusions, whereas multi-focus decision-makers are inclined to bend the rules needlessly or to invent new rules of their own. In addition, the uni- focus mode fits better when other people must be able to rely in the future on commitments that are made now. (Imagine a public transportation system managed in the multi-focus mode!) The uni-focus mode works best in functions such as production and auditing.

Multi-focus decision-makers take the lead, however, when new territory must be charted and there are no known guidelines to follow, and also when outcomes that might result from various actions are uncertain. Many research and development situations fit this description. Not surprisingly, we find that multi-focus decision- makers are found in large numbers in design and engineering jobs, and in marketing positions as well as in sales.

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