Managing in the Gray: A book review by Bob Morris

managing-the-grayManaging in the Gray: Five Timeless Questions for Resolving Your Toughest Problems at Work
Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business School Press (September 2016)

Here’s what you need when making the most difficult decisions

Friedrich Hegel once suggested that many of the most difficult decisions we make in life are not between good and bad but rather, between good and good. These decisions are even more difficult when, Joseph Badaracco suggests, “when we have to deal with a highly uncertain, high-stakes problem,” one that challenges not only our skills but also our humanity. As I began to work my way through the book, I was again reminded of the fact that in The Inferno, Dante reserves the last – and worst – ring in hell for whose who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

“The soundest guidance,” Badaracco believes, “for grappling with hard, complex, uncertain practical problems is a set of five questions that men and women have turned to, across many centuries and cultures, when they faced this kind of a problem. Gray areas demand your best judgment, and the five questions are, in essence, extraordinarily valuable tools for judgment.” They are:

o What are the net, net consequences?
o What are my core obligations?
o What will work in the world as it is?
o Who are we?
o What can I live with?

These questions are easy to ask but very difficult to answer. And even then, once we have the answers, we may not be willing and/or able to act upon them. Badaracco advises his reader, “The more responsibility you take on at work and in life, the more often you face gray area problems, and these problems come in all shapes and sizes.” Moreover, these situations “can be dangerous traps — organizational versions of the primeval tar pits that swallowed up the fearsome saber-toothed tigers. You can easily get bogged down in a gray area as you try to figure out what is going on. Even worse, you can get lost or be paralyzed by complexities and uncertainties. On the other hand, if you act too quickly, you can make a mistake with serious consequences: other people get hurt, performance suffers, and your career stalls.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Badarocco’s coverage:

o The Challenge of Gray Areas (Pages 2-6)
o The Five Questions (6-10)
o Thinking Broadly And Thinking Deeply (16-21)
o Avoiding groupthink and bossthink (36-37)
o Do We Really Need More Questions? (38-41)
o Our Core Human Obligations (45-51)
o Friedman-Fletcher Case Study on Performance Evaluation (74-71, 86-87, and 114-115)
o Human Nature, Realism, and Pragmatism (76-81)
o The Network of Mutuality (100-102)
o Character and Judgment in Decision-Making (123-127)
o Appendix A: Humanism (147-149)
o Appendix B: Human Nature, Evolution, and Ethics (153-158)

I also call to your attention a “Practical Challenge” section that Badarocco includes in chapters 2-6. Also, “Practical Guidance” sections that address these challenges:

o Get the Process Right (24-38)
For example: “Orchestrate Pushback”

o Awaken Your Moral Imagination (54-69)
“Attack the Obstacles”

o The Resilience Test (81-92)
“Map the Territory of Power and Interest”

o Four Steps to Take to Meet Challenges (106-118)
“Reflect on Your Real Self-Interest”

o Tempered Intuition (130-141)
“Make the Decision, Explain It, and Move Ahead”

Why are the five questions so important? As indicated earlier, “In essence, they are the questions that thoughtful men and women have relied on, for many centuries and across many cultures, when they had to grapple with hard, complex, uncertain practical problems. The questions reflect profound insights about human nature, our common life together, and what counts as a good life. Understood fully and used together, the questions are valuable tools for guiding your judgment when you have to make a decision about a gray area.”

Badaracco did not write this book to help people avoid gray area problems. Those problems are certain it occur, often suddenly and without warning. No, his purpose is to help prepare his reader to make right decisions, however intimidating the given circumstances may be. “The five questions are, in effect, important voices in as long conversation about how the world really works, what makes us truly human, and the soundest way to make difficult, important decisions. No single voice in the long conversation gives us a universal truth, but each gives us valuable insights for making uncertain, high-stakes decisions.” He devotes a separate chapter to each of the five.

Once again, I am greatly impressed by the number and diversity of examples Badarocco cites when making key points. They include (in alpha order) Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Jane Austen, Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Tim Cook, Confucius, Michel de Montaigne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Albert Einstein — that’s just through “E” — you get the idea. Yes, I realize that over the centuries the questions have been posed in dozens of languages and in hundreds of variations. The issues addressed, however, are relevant because they are timeless

In this context, I am reminded of an observation by Bernard Levin in an article written for The Times in 1991: “I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity: ‘How did he know all that about me?’ The answer is, of course, that he knows it by knowing all about himself.”

Some questions can serve as windows, others as mirrors, and still others as both. The questions Joseph Badarocco recommends can certainly serve both functions if (HUGE “if”) those who seek answers to them are not only willing but eager to embrace the truth revealed, however unpleasant and even threatening to one’s entropy it may be.

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