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Are my Choices Free?

Have you ever asked yourself the question, ‘How free am I to choose?’. When we really think about it, most of us like to take the view we are free to make choices and decisions on our own as free and autonomous individuals. Very many of us have been heavily influenced by understanding that for example, through positive action and aspiration anyone can be or do whatever they set out to be or do Far be it from me to put the brakes on anyone’s aspiration. That is the last thing I would want to do. I do however want to invite you to ask that question, ‘How free am I to choose?’ and to ask it for the sake of your aspiration.

The Art, Craft & Science of Choice

In this video the great Henry Mintzberg explores aspects of decision making and managing describing it in terms of it being an art, a craft or a science. In a business environment - and I realise most people reading this article will be doing so from the perspective of their business in one way or another - there is a tendency to think of decision-making or making choices as the product of a scientific method, or a rational process. In other words, we so often want to suppose that the best decisions are the product of our careful reasoning, considering all the evidence and so forth. As Henry Mintzberg explains in the video clip, our choosing is a mixture of:

Art (inspiration/insight),

Craft (iteration/practice)

Science (reason)

Aristotle: Pathos, Ethos and Logos

Close to two and a half thousand years ago, the Philosopher Aristotle summed up the way people make choices - make decisions - based on three factors:

Pathos by which he meant really an emotional response, a feeling about this or that

Ethos by which he meant trust and trustworthiness

Logos by which he meant reason

It is all about Our Own Prudent Insight

Consider your own choices. How many of them are really made based on what Mintzberg calls “science” or a scientific method. How many of them are based on what Aristotle understands as “logos” or reason. Really very few decisions are make wholly on hard facts and reasoned evidence. Decisions are made on the basis of a cocktail of factors. At the heart of them is another word used by Aristotle: Prudence.

Prudence is often taken to mean “being careful” or “being cautious”. In this instance, prudence means “practical wisdom”. It is a balancing of: Mintzberg’s Art, Craft & Science; Aristotle’s Pathos, Ethos & Logos

As such this prudence involves checks and balances enabling the insight in great choices. Within the work I have been involved in developing, we describe these checks and balances as that which “regulates” choices and decision-making. And it is at this point I want to reiterate the question forming the title of this article directing it at you: are your choices free?

Regulating Choices & Decisions

It is our insight that any decision - any choice - that is made by individuals is summarised in their:

Expectations and their hopes, fears and aspirations and so forth

Values summing up the way they seek to live out their life and work and what they aspire to

Norms by which we means the standards and expectations they have - in other words what they expect to achieve.

The Regulating Zones

It is our insight that any decision - any choice - is directly influenced in context by:

Story in other words the narrative/heritage of a particular operational context

Identity by this we mean the clarity of the mission, purpose and vision of the operational context

Beliefs by which we means the commitments and understanding about people and their development in context.

So are my choices free?

The honest answer is, yes and no.

Choices are regulated by us as individuals and the context in which those choices are made. The influences each of us brings to bear on our choosing impacts directly on our performance as individuals. Just as importantly, the influences brought to bear by our operational context is even more important, for each of us is constrained, bound, tethered by our context.

In our work, we describe a “dialogue” that goes on all the time between individuals and the context in which they operate. This is a natural and normal function of development. To get technical, we describe this as a dialogue between two types of moral system:

Existential We think about the individual making their own prudent choices based their expectations, values and norms

Deontological By this we mean the kind of “this is how it is around here” understanding of operational contexts in terms of the story it has to tell, its sense of identity and its beliefs.

Our choices are bound up within this dialogue. It is this dialogue that constrains, that influences our choosing.

As to whether any of us is ever really wholly free, well that is a discussion to think about. For the purpose of this article maybe one aspect of our freedom in choosing lies in our engaging in and understanding that dialogue between us as individuals and the context in which we find ourselves. Perhaps in this dialogue we will be able to reflect on lessons from Henry Mintzberg and Aristotle to help us in our choosing.

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