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5 Questions to Ask When Managing in the Gray

Managing Gray

JOSEPH BADARACCO PROVIDES A WAY to resolve the inevitable gray areas we will all face from time to time in Managing in the Gray. It is the core of a leaders work.

Gray areas demand our best judgment. The five questions provide a way to get there. They are “a distinctive way of sizing up gray area issues, analyzing them carefully, grappling with their full, human complexity, and then—and only then—making final decisions.”

Avoid the temptation to skip a question or pick a favorite. “This approach improves deliberation and judgment because the questions complement, correct, and strengthen each other.”

5 Questions to work through the gray of difficult decisions:

What are the net, net consequences?

The critical first step requires thinking deeply putting aside your own self-interest. Don’t oversimplify. That means don’t just think about those things you can put a number to. “Life is a rich canvas, not a cartoon.” Understanding the net, net consequences means thinking in terms of “everything that matters to us as human beings: hope, joy, security, freedom from hazards, health, friendship, and love, risk, suffering, and dreams.” What are we trying to do for people, not to them?

Keep in mind we have a strong self-enhancement bias. We tend to see too quickly. The process is important when working on gray area problems. “How you work on a problem can be as important as what you ultimately decide to do.”

Get the right people in the room. Assign a couple of people to play devil’s advocate. Begin by developing a list of things you could do as opposed to what you should do. Then work out the possible outcomes of each possibility.

What are my core obligations?

“When trying to resolve a gray area problem, you have to develop an answer—for yourself—to the question of what your core human obligations require you to do and not do in the situation you face.” In a business situation, it is important to take a hard look at the economics but at the same time, you need to look past the economics and try resolving the issue like a human being. When looking at a gray area problem you must awaken your moral imagination. Edmund Burke described it as a “reaction to a situation that the heart owns and the understanding ratifies.” Again, make it part of the process.

What will work in the world as it is?

More than what will work. What will work in the world as it is? Don’t let idealistic notions distort your thinking. “If you have serious responsibilities, you must avoid the trap of seeing the world as you want it to be.” “The question asks managers if they are prepared to do what is necessary in this world—to serve the interests of people who depend on them and also protect themselves and advance their own objectives.” The question becomes, “How resilient is my plan and how resilient am I?” Badaracco offers five steps to help you answer with eyes-wide-open realism.

Who are we?

This questions guides leaders to see their identities as woven into the fabric of their surrounding communities. “It then encourages them to seek options that will reflect, express, and give reality to the norms and values of the communities to which they belong.” We are social creatures. “It is relationships, values, and norms that make us who we are.” See the problem in context. “When you face a hard gray area issue, you should spend a few minutes stepping back and trying to understand the situation in terms of some of the defining experiences in your organization’s history that matter to you and help you understand what your organization stands for.”

What can I live with?

Not what is best or right, but what you can live with. After all is said and done It is quite possible—even probable—that you will not find a solution. If that’s the case you have to create an answer you can live with. It means “you did all you could, but you’ve only met a minimum standard of acceptability.” And of course, you have to take responsibility for it. “Gray area decisions inevitably reflect and reveal the personal priorities of the person who makes them.” And so these kinds of tough questions push you to reflect on what you can live with. They test competence and character. What are your convictions? Alfred P. Sloan wrote in his autobiography, “The final act of business judgment is, of course, intuitive.”

Badaracco concludes: “Men and women should approach gray area issues as managers and resolve them as human beings.

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