Managing a path to wisdom

David Pauleen and Ali Intezari interviewed dozens of senior managers and discovered three fundamental skills of
wise decision-making.

Does it take the displine of yoga, meditation and philosophy to gain wisdom – or can it be achieved in the workplace through the practice of good management and decision-making?

To answer this question we interviewed dozens of senior managers – and discovered three fundamental skills of wise decision-making. We would also argue that wise decision-making in the course of your career and daily life will inevitably lead to wisdom itself.  

The three fundamental skills to emerge from our research were as follows:

Multi-perspective consideration: This is the ability to integrate different perspectives when making a decision. The consequences of the decision are anticipated, various perspectives are taken into account and ethical codes are considered. Values – those of the decision-maker as well as those affected by the decision and the community as a whole – are all part of the process. It means having a true understanding of the bigger picture as understanding others’ actions is critical to making the right decision. 

Self-other awareness: This is the decision-maker’s awareness of self, integrated with his/her awareness of the surrounding environment (or other awareness). Our findings show that wise managers have an accurate understanding of their own personal capacities – what they know and what they do not know – and their abilities and inabilities, interests, values and beliefs. They can also clearly perceive the external environment, including stakeholders’ interests. Their self-awareness is always accompanied by an awareness of what is going on around them, within and outside their organisations. This allows them to confidently and fearlessly admit when their ideas or thoughts are implausible or wrong. 

Cognitive-emotional mastery: This is the extent to which decision-makers integrate their cognitive abilities with their non-rational decision-making skills. Wise business decisions rely on the integration of certainty and doubt and wise managers incorporate into their decisions what they know, while applying a considered estimation of what they do not know. Lacking this integration of certainty and doubt may lead the manager to over-estimate the value of their knowledge and under-estimate the impact of unknown elements or apparently irrelevant factors. 

Wise managers never ignore logical reasoning as they might need it when it comes to justifying their decisions in front of stakeholders. Yet they know that emotion, intuition and imagination are powerful sources in decision-making too.

While these three skills provide the fundamental skillset for making wise decisions, it is ‘practice that makes perfect’ when it comes to developing these decision-making skills and ultimately walking the path to wisdom.

The path to management wisdom is open to everyone but, like business success itself, it requires perseverance and commitment – perseverance to practice and a committment to deeply reflective learning.

Wise managers engage, as a matter of habit, in thinking about what their action will mean in the world. They also practice reflexivity, which is the awareness of your relationship with others and how your own practice and behaviour contributes to the wider organisational and social environment.

Through reflexivity, the internal and/or external worlds may change. A person may change their internal world to adapt to the external world. This may happen, for example, when a manager learns from others’ mistakes and realises that her values, abilities, and skills must change or develop further. 

A reflexive manager may also work to change the external world for the greater good, directing the belief and value systems, attitudes, and interests of others in the wider organisation and business community. 

Wisdom is more than just the accumulation of knowledge. It is learning about yourself and others and increasing the capacity to learn. It is not just about learning how to make wise decisions, but doing so through exposure to the real world. 

This requires the development and mastery of a host of personal qualities and abilities, incuding analytical abilities, insight, reflection, emotions and judgement skills, as well as entwining ethics and moral issues in business decisions.

Here are the first steps to managing a path to wisdom:

• Remain aware: Successful business people not only have a true awareness of themselves, but also of others and events around them. This breadth of awareness enables the successful business person to make the most out of their own strengths and the opportunities that emerge in the market.

• Constantly reflect on your decisions and actions: While you are unlikely to forget hard lessons learned from a costly mistake, there are plenty of valuable lessons in everyday decisions and actions – successful or not – that may be otherwise ignored, or forgotten. Reflect on the feelings, thoughts and values of the community and society you are working in. Societal values and beliefs are dynamic and evolving, as are market needs and expectations. Regularly reflecting on these expectations helps you keep your business at the crest of of the wave.

• Experience: This is important, but you can compensate for a lack of knowledge or experience with timely, reliable, and relevant information and the ability to apply it. Having experience and knowledge alone is not enough. To solve a problem, you also need to be aware of what you do not know, and be willing to seek out others and make use of their knowledge and experience.

• Consider different perspectives: What are the expectations (financial and non-financial) of your company, business and local community? Keep in mind all the different perspectives, their sources, and their main concerns as much as possible. Prioritise them. Articulate the expectations that are behind each perspective. Incorporate those perspectives into your decision and see how you can improve your decision based on those expectations. Do not neglect or underestimate the perspective of any stakeholder. You may need them in the future, either to defend or improve your decisions. Understanding the value of others allows you to know what your business should value.

• Be both analytical and insightful: When it comes to making an important business or personal decision, you have to make an informed rational decision. But do not ignore your emotions. There should be enough room for both rationality and non-rationality in your decisions. You should reflect on your experience, yet listen to your gut feeling along the way. Logic and emotion may appear to be opposites but they are complementary. Your instincts are rooted in your unconscious analysis of your experiences and in your hidden knowledge and information. Listen to your intuition, gather useful information, and then back up your feelings with relevant, reliable, and
up-to-date information and analysis.


Associate Professor David Pauleen and Dr Ali Intezari are researchers with Massey University’s School of Management.

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