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Decide how to make decisions!

Tuesday December 11th, 2018

I said it before: “I love the US”. I realize this each time I’m here. This blog is written from Austin (Texas), where I work for a week. I love the superficial “Hey, how are you doing today?”. Yes, I perceive it as superficial, but hey, ‘What can be wrong with just being nice?’ I love the service-oriented attitude in every restaurant and bar. I love the fact that everything is easy here: merging on the highway, booking a hotel or movie, paying a bill. And I love it that everything goes fast in the US: ‘Let’s do it’ is a slogan invented in this country. Decisions are taken quickly. And this is such basic promise in the US, that they expect other countries to work according to this principle as well.

This obviously does not work. Other countries have different rules, but the Americans often stick to a very one-sided way of reasoning. If other countries work differently, then this clearly means they haven’t taken the time to study the way the Americans do it. “And they can and should learn from that”, Joe would say.

Not all cultures are as decisive as the Americans are. Take the Japanese. In a recent publication, Hayes [1] studied ‘indecisiveness’ (a state of mind in which the person is yet uncommitted to a particular course of action). One of the key findings of his research was that ‘cultural differences in indecisiveness might be supported by values representing either admiration or disdain for decisive versus indecisive behaviors’.


Do we value decisive or indecisive behaviors?


When you are from a western culture yourself, like most readers of this blog, it is likely that for you ‘indecisiveness’ has a negative connotation. We tend to associate it with ambiguity, slow progress, and doubtfulness. The word, however, has a more positive connotation in Japan. The Japanese decision makers appear indecisive because decision-making is a complex and detailed process, which starts with a thorough analysis of decision problems. This thoroughness is a high ‘Japanese value’. The process of decision-making improves when many options for the decision have been weighed and judged meticulously, and when a solid process has led to one final outcome. We can say that – unlike Americans – the Japanese admire indecisive behaviors (not indecisiveness itself: they are very decisive, but just follow a different process to get to solid decisions). They generate more arguments when taking decisions and go through more options at a higher speed. We can assume that indecisiveness emerges from the thoroughness with which people go about the deliberations that support their decisions [1].


Western cultures can learn a lot from the Japanese. In Japan, the first ideas that pop up in your mind when thinking about a problem are considered to be the worst ideas. There is a need to push beyond the obvious, to reach conclusions that are more refined, more solid and more ‘thorough’. This comes with generating opposing arguments to an idea or solution with high speed: the more opposing arguments you can generate, the better will be the quality of the idea that survives this process. Also, the Japanese appear indecisive: “They keep generating new ideas without closing in on one best idea”, will be the observation of an American.

The Americans have an entirely different view. Here, the word ‘indecisive’ has negative connotations. When your boss tells you that you are a bit indecisive, this is definitely negative feedback, and an urge to become more forceful and less unclear or vague about what you want. In the US, everything goes fast, also decision-making. There is an underlying belief that a decision is always better than no decision. And if a decision turns out to be the wrong one, we regret yet also see it as a learning opportunity. ‘Trial and error’ is a positive concept in the US. From the above analysis, it will be clear that the Japanese colleague looks horrified with the ‘trial and error’-approach. So the Japanese may often describe their American counterparts as “immature, reckless and impulsive”.

This article by intercultural Japan-specialist Rochelle Kopp [2] gives a very good insight into the matter:


What do we decide about: the answer or the question?


When it comes to making decisions, another difference between the western world and Japan emerges. This was pointed out already many years ago by Drucker [3]. We mean something different when we talk about ‘making a decision’.

In our western perspective, ‘taking a decision’ means that we define an answer for an existing problem. We put all emphasis on finding the answer to the question. To the Japanese, however, the important element in decision making is ‘defining the question’. The Japanese will spend a lot of time on the question before they ever start investigating all the possible answers. For the Japanese, it is important to define if an answer is needed (if there is a need for a decision), and they also spend a lot of time discussing what the decision exactly is about. In this step, the Japanese aim to find consensus about the question to be answered.  So while the American is already brainstorming about possible solutions to the problem and converging on the best possible solution, the Japanese are still not sure exactly what problem needs to be solved. In their view, brainstorming about an ill-defined and vague problem is a waste of time.

This translates into a very different implementation phase after a decision has been made. In the western world, we are prepared to spend much time ‘selling’ the decision and obtaining the ‘buy-in’ from people. The Japanese, however, do not need to spend any time on ‘selling’ the decision. Everybody has been ‘presold’. There is consensus for all involved. This consensus does not necessarily mean that everybody now fully agrees and has consensus about the content. Consensus about the process is often more important. For the Japanese, if the right process has been followed, the decision by definition is good and can be trusted.

When it comes to making decisions, the two worlds can clash, as clearly there is a difference of opinion about the process of decision making. International companies with multi-site cooperation and decision-making should:

  • Respect each other’s processes for local decision-making and not interfere. At the same time, they should not assume their own local process to apply to decisions taken at other sites
  • For cross-site decision-making (like in most projects these days), spend time defining how decisions will be taken in the future and lay out each step of the process. This step will provide clarity to all involved and prevents lots of frustration
  • Especially management of cross-cultural teams needs to realize that it is their role to ensure a clear and transparent decision-making process is defined. Management often ignores this step, assuming there is some international process for decision-making recognized by all. There is not.
  • The decision-making process should address things like dealing with hierarchy, how do we ensure bottom-up inputs before a decision is taken, who owns and drives the decision-making process, how do we communicate about decisions and deploy etc. This should not be a process described in a thick pack of paper, but a one-A4, clear and simple description of how we will make decisions.

So before you make decisions, you should first decide how you make decisions!


[1] Frank Yates, Li-Jun Ji, Takashi Oka, Ju-Whei Lee, Hiromi Shinotsuka, and Winston R. Sieck, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 41(3) 428–444

[2] Rochelle Kopp,

[3] Peter Drucker,

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