People know the story. A group of kids is playing on a splitting railroad track. A bunch of them are playing on the used railroad track where the train is about to pass. On the other unused and dilapidated track, only one child is playing. The scheduled train is rushing towards its destination. You have the decision to divert the train. Will you choose to save the group of kids, or would you rather sacrifice them? This story is a classic and has been seen in the form of a blog, a social media post, or even as a meme. Some job recruiters and job interviewers even ask this question to test prospective candidates on how good their decision-making skills are.
Now, making decisions can either be difficult or easy. The enormity and difficulty of this decision will almost always be directly proportional to its size and impact. A prime example of this is the national elections. Rightly so, as the people are given the privilege and the chance to choose someone who may head the country towards a brighter future.
Even in controlled environments, decision-making is already a very stressful thing. It is even more stressful in extreme conditions. Take, for example, the stories of the different foot soldiers in Dewald’s book on decision making under fire. One wrong move could spell the difference between life and death for these people. Therefore, the ability to make a “correct” decision has been drilled into them at the beginning of basic training. This makes it so that people will not become a unit full of headless chickens whenever their bosses or Commanding Officers get killed or captured.
The Importance of Decision Making
Therefore, one cannot take the importance of decision-making for granted. By extension, one cannot, in any circumstance, devalue the work of a colleague who has excellent decision-making skills. By allowing them to grow and nurture their skills, there will come a time when all those efforts will be put back a hundredfold. Should someone be confident enough in their decision-making skills, they will become valuable assets for the group in the future.
Why is that, you say?
Because it is a skill that allows you to choose. Decision-making is a challenging task to do correctly. Half of the population would be second-guessing, wondering if their actions were wrong. Being affected by this problem may affect output as well as efficiency in the future.
The Art of Decision Making
The ability to confidently pick the correct decision is not only a skill. It is also an art. Decisions, especially those done under pressure, are most often a result of years and years of experience of the individual. These experiences will crystallize into knowledge, and with plenty of knowledge to fall back into, decision-making almost becomes second nature to an individual. Hence the ability to become a good decision-maker is grown and chiseled over time. This is akin to a painter developing his sketches or studying anatomy before even painting any single body part or a sculptor who looks for the best materials for each piece before even applying a chisel to stone.
So to get back to the story introduced earlier. What would be the best decision for that situation? While conventional wisdom states that you must sacrifice one for the good of many, this situation calls for more than convention. Careful observation would state that the kid playing alone on the abandoned and unused track was right to do so. It wouldn’t be fair for the kid to suffer such doom when he was only following the right thing to do. The kids playing on the active or used track can always run away should the train arrive. They know that the track they are playing on is used, and they might be aware of the train coming soon. Hence, they might know when to avoid the incoming train.
And then there is the issue of sacrifice. If people choose to redirect the track, it might seem that they are only sacrificing one child compared to the group. However, they have failed to assess the train. What if that said train contains passengers, and then the choice redirects these trains to the abandoned track. Doesn’t that change the story of everything? First of all, the number of victims, not only will you have the hands of the child, but also the people who are riding the train. Even then, the damage of the train derailing and crashing into the abandoned railroad could be catastrophic in and of itself. The damage it could cause to the community could be enormous.