Decision-Making Traps

Law enforcement is filled with decision-making. You need to go deeper in your understanding of this near art form. To improve your own skills, you need to learn about decision-making traps and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.

Amaury Murgado Headshot

Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

Law enforcement is filled with decision-making. Some decisions are made in split seconds and others take days if not weeks to complete. It's something that the job demands and expects us to get right. We are expected to maintain a gold standard but we don't receive gold standard training.

Yes, you are shown the criminal and civil statues that you will be working with. And yes, you have to know your own agency's policy and procedures manual. And yes, you have senior officers around you that you can go to for help. But is that enough to handle the depth and scope of your decision-making? I think not. You need to go deeper in your understanding of this near art form. To improve your own skills, you need to learn about decision-making traps and how to use this knowledge to your advantage.

Types of Decisions

I break down decision-making into tactical and strategic decisions. Tactical decisions are those that require a "right now" type of answer. These decisions deal with the immediate, give you little time to process, and are the "in your face" type of issues. Strategic decisions are those that require a "not now but later" type of answer. These decisions are more deliberate, give you plenty of time to process, and are the "soon to be in your face" type of issues. A good visualization is comparing the decision-making differences between a road patrol sergeant and a detective sergeant.

A road patrol sergeant makes a hundred decisions a day, whereas a detective sergeant may make a hundred decisions a month. The road sergeant handles tactical decisions that revolve around in-progress calls. The detective sergeant handles strategic decisions that revolve around calls that are over with. The road sergeant has to act now, whereas the detective sergeant can act later. This comparison sets up the premise for my discussion. I will be focusing on the more strategic side of the house and leave the tactical side for another day. In other words, how do you make good decisions when you have time to do so?

Key Elements

The first step is to have some type of methodology. In the book "Decision Traps," by J.E. Russo and Paul J.H. Schoemaker, the authors detail a four-point process for how to arrive at a decision. I have had this book since it first came out in 1989, and though there is an updated version called "Winning Decisions," I've kept the first edition in play as it has served me well. Whenever I am presented with an involved task, big project, or major decision at work, I refer to it often. As detailed in the book, there are four key elements to making any decision that you should become familiar with.

Framing: Framing is a way of creating the question to be answered. The question is always more important than the answer; ask the right question and you get the right answer. The authors explain that "good decision-makers think about the viewpoint from which they and others will look at the issue and decide which aspects they consider important and which they do not."

In my opinion, this is the most important part of decision-making as most mistakes occur in the early stages of solving the problem. It's these early mistakes that eventually steer you off course and into a faulty outcome.

Gathering Intelligence: This means finding facts and creating reasonable estimates and parameters. Information is just information until it's processed, filtered, and corroborated. Processed information therefore turns into useful intelligence. Not everything we know applies to our situation and not everything we think we know is correct. The better the facts are, so goes the decision. Don't ever skimp on doing your homework as it will hurt you in the long run. It’s like buying a used car; know the current price point trends on the model you are hunting for and you won't get ripped off at the dealership.

Coming to Conclusions: The authors stress that "sound framing and good intelligence don't guarantee a wise decision." You still need a systematic approach to making your decisions rather than flying by the seat of your pants. You have to create a structure filled with checks and balances to help you along the way. Decisions don't just come to you, you fight to create them.[PAGEBREAK]Learning or Failing to Learn from Feedback: In law enforcement, this means having debriefs, creating lessons learned files, and writing detailed after-action reports. In theory, applying your lessons learned should make your new decisions better by not making the same mistakes twice. If you do make the same mistake twice, you’re either an idiot, you weren't paying attention the first time, or both.

Decision Traps

The authors also suggest there are 10 decision traps to look out for. Not just because you might fall into them, but so you can watch out for others who already have. Why someone is thinking one way or another is more important than what that person is thinking. Knowing how to recognize these in yourself and others will give you a big advantage. Watch out for these:

Plunging in: Your mistake becomes gathering information but reaching a premature conclusion. You fail to look at all sides of the issue you are working. You don't look at all the information. Problems are seldom one dimensional, and without looking at all angles you fall short. In other words, you act before you have all the facts.

Frame Blindness: This is where you set off to solve the wrong problem. You either overlook the best options or you lose sight of important objectives because you set up the wrong question. This is where your own bias comes into play. If you don't keep an open mind, you won't look at all the variables or options. A great deal of time and energy is spent following the wrong direction. The end always depends on the beginning.

Lack of Frame Control: If you don't know your frame you can't explain it to others. If you don’t understand the frame of others you can't understand their point of view. You also need to know when to re-frame. What is a good frame today may not be so tomorrow. Leave yourself room to maneuver. Don't get emotionally attached to one solution. The goal is to solve the problem or work through the issue.

Overconfidence in Your Judgment: This is where you fail to collect factual information because you are so sure of your assumptions and opinions. This usually manifests itself in the form of a senior person flexing their muscle on an issue. These are the guys that never leave their comfort zone, don't learn anything new, and fail to grow with the times. They often say things like, "this is the way we’ve always done it." Disco was great in its day too; today, not so much.

Shortsighted Shortcuts: This is where you rely on "rules of thumb" or place too much emphasis on convenient information. Shortcuts are often used to get you in the ballpark but they seldom lead you to a home run on their own. Shortcuts can be used to jump-start your decision. You also need to keep in the back of your mind that the most readily available information is not necessarily the most accurate or pertinent information. Lazy fact finders give you the easiest information they obtained but their information is not necessarily the best.

Shooting From the Hip: This means believing you can keep all the information in your head and avoid following a systematic procedure. Choosing where to eat lunch is one thing; deciding on what new patrol car your agency is going adopt is another. If you have people attending meetings without their notes, supporting data, and research, replace them immediately because they are not taking it seriously. You'll also know if people are faking it because their answers will be emotional, opinionated, and misinformed.

Group Failure: This is where you assume that since you are involved with a group of smart people it will be easy to come up with a decision. Some of the most difficult people I have ever had to deal with had college degrees or decades of experience. You still have to manage the group and control the process. Control the process and you control the outcome. People will acquiesce to more senior officers or members of command staff just to make life easier for themselves, or so they can leave work on time. Don't let them.

Fooling Yourself About the Feedback: This is where you fail to interpret or choose not to accept the lessons from past experience. You are either protecting your ego or are afraid of ruffling a supervisor or command staff's feathers. How many times have high-fives been given instead of a more appropriately needed kick in the pants? The cool thing about the truth is you only have to deal with it once.

Failure to Audit Your Decision Process: Neglecting to evaluate your process could derail your decision-making. You need to create your own decision-making process so you can always be aware of the traps and pitfalls you might encounter. But you also need to create some checks and balances to keep yourself on the right track. Establish early on what is acceptable and what is not. Create benchmarks and checklists to help you.

Plan and Adapt

Decision-making can either be tactical or strategic in nature. Whatever you decide can have a good or bad outcome depending on how you set yourself up when first attacking the issue. The best thing you can do for yourself is know your job inside and out, know what your agency expects from you, and more importantly, learn from your mistakes.

Not all bad decisions are career ending, but make enough of them and you will find yourself working somewhere else. Take measures to learn how to make quality decisions and you, your agency, and those you protect will benefit greatly from it.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He has 25 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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