Many times throughout my career, I’ve discussed the issue of precedent. I imagine in HR departments up and down the land, people are arguing what might or might not set one.
An earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.
there are substantial precedents for using interactive media in training’
Law – A previous case or legal decision that may be or (binding precedent) must be followed in subsequent similar cases. ‘we hope to set a legal precedent to protect hundreds of miles of green lanes’
For me, this is one of the examples where the law has strayed too far into the workplace. We quote decisions made as if they are legally binding, when of course they are entirely within the remit of our organisation. The fear of treating people as individuals is one of the reasons that stands in our way of creating really powerful cultures.
“If we allow them xxx, then everyone will want one”
“If they can do xxx, then we will need to allow everyone”
“It will set a precedent”
If you’re making a decision based on the facts of a case or situation, if you’re taking into consideration the various aspects, then there is no need to fear anything. If a similar situation occurs, it either has the same fact and aspects – in which case you can make the same decision again, or it doesn’t – in which case you have the reason and explanation for making a different call.
Too often we use an argument of precedent as a shield to hide behind, that stop us engaging with the human factors of a case or situation. We avoid the need to thoughtfully consider the specific aspects by creating a one size fits all solution, which we refuse to move away from at any cost.
Fairness isn’t about treating everyone identically, it’s about applying the same consideration to every situation. The only precedent that matters, is making good decisions.
In life there is a natural continuum between principles and pragmatism. It runs throughout our work, our personal decisions, our politics and our businesses. Running the gauntlet between the two polar forces is a key tenet of successful leadership.
The allure of the principled leader is strong. We want people who stand for something, organisations with clear values and purpose. But the frustration is palpable when they stand in the way of things just getting done.
People who make things happen, who are willing to compromise and change their position. We admire them with a distrust. What wouldn’t they forsake?
Knowing when to stand by your personal value set, your principles and knowing when to let go and move on for the sake of organisational/societal benefit is perhaps the biggest challenge for us all.
This easy answer is to say it’s neither one nor the other – it is a beautiful simple, yet totally impotent perspective. An anodyne position which adds little to any understanding of the complexity of values and decision-making.
Because the truth to leadership is not recognising when you need to compromise, or stick by your principles – but understanding why others need to do so. Giving forgiveness and tolerance to the value sets of others.
It doesn’t matter whether it is personal, business or political. Our difference is created by recognising the difference in others. That sometimes we all need to stand firm and sometimes we need to change, admit we were wrong and reconsider.
Failure is when we judge without seeking to understand.
Human beings are beautifully imperfect creatures – that’s what makes us interesting and frustrating in equal measure. We have the ability to process the most complex information and draw sense and understanding from it. And at the same time, we have the ability to lose total sight of the information and arguments in a decision, because of the lens through which we personally see the world.
Sometimes that’s ok. You ask a room full of football supporters who the best team is and you’ll have numerous impassioned arguments. Most of them are probably factually incorrect, but it doesn’t really matter – the opinion, the belief, the fundamental and overwhelming support is the characteristic that we treasure. We could probably, factually, work out which is the best team – but what’s the fun in that?
Other times, it prevents us from running our businesses and our lives successfully. We eschew the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, to recognise our own assumptions and we choose to make decisions based on a limited set of information – often because not doing so would directly challenge our status, our beliefs or our previous decisions.
It’s a curious one.
One of the nicest, simplest models I’ve seen for this is Pearson’s RED:
- How can you help separate opinion from fact?
- What assumptions are you bringing in to the decision-making process?
- What are the different view points that exist?
- What data exists to help explore the question at hand?
- What are the pros and cons of different viewpoints?
- Can you make the opposite argument to your natural positions?
- How does the data stack up against the various perspectives?
- What will be the impact and how do you know?
- Given all the information and arguments, what’s the best way forward?
- How do you know?
- What data/information supports your decision?
- Is there something that you don’t know that would be helpful?
There is and will always be room for impassioned arguments and beliefs in business as there is in life. Critical thinking is about curiosity, it is about wanting to explore difference, wanting to understand views, wanting to learn and inform – not beating everyone around the head with demands for rationality and data – that’s another type of closed mindedness.
Seeking first to understand and explore, checking ourselves for out own assumptions and weighing up possibilities can only help us to be both more confident of our views and more rational in our arguments and better in our conclusions. We should, after all, be interested in making the best decisions that we can.