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Showing Your Work: A Reflection on Decision-Making Legitimacy

Posted on March 28, 2024

By Interim Dean Gina Lovasi, PhD, MPH

Gina Lovasi headshot

Many strengths have a downside. Or, conversely, weaknesses may prove to have an upside. A strength/weakness I have been thinking about this week is my sense of urgency/impatience in fulfilling my responsibilities.

A sense of urgency has often served me well, and I would never trade it for complacency. I want to move our collective work forward energetically and without stalling. And there are plenty of asks and opportunities to move forward.

But where is the right cutoff to determine the volume that should move forward? Clearly, doing everything that anyone asks would be a leadership disaster, a failure to exert judgement about what matters. But what matters is a spectrum, not a binary.

One type of opportunity has particularly given me pause this month, as it is neither crucially central to our mission nor easily dismissed as trivial: the opportunity to nominate people in our school to attend events on our behalf. These are often events hosted by other organizations who share our values. Presence shows our support and creates the possibility of new or strengthened connections. Beyond dedicating time, the school may further amplify this message of support by covering ticket/sponsorship costs, and the individuals engaged may contribute expertise through a presentation or through service in helping to plan the event.

Allocating event invitations

My process when these invitation opportunities arise has been to think through what initiatives or projects within our school can be highlighted to reinforce our support of and alignment with the host organization. As invitations come in, I’m also looking out for ways to check my biases, as it is tempting to approach people most top of mind based on recent meetings, or who have said yes to prior asks. The part of our website that allows filtering by faculty interests has proved useful, and I am also continuously working to build my familiarity with center and department staff and student-led activities.

Some consider attending events on behalf of our school to be a service ask, and as there is some truth in this I want to distribute the burden of these time commitments. Such events can be a joyful reprieve and a chance to build new external connections, which I likewise want to distribute fairly over time.

That is to say, allocating invitations can be complicated. I am trying to balance interests of the external organization hosting the event, reputational benefits to our school, and a fair distribution across individuals over time. And this balancing act is often squeezed between meetings, train rides, and time-sensitive tasks.

What I am realizing is that when I send such an invitation, there may be some mystery on the recipient’s end about why I am reaching out to them in particular and not someone else within our school. I have done a calculation of sorts, but I have not shown my work. I find myself thinking back to math classes when I had wanted to get through the work quickly just providing the answers and trusting that they are correct, rather than taking the time to show my work.

Sharing about how decisions are made, like showing your work on a math problem, has a couple of benefits. First, the answer or the process to reach that answer might be flawed, and showing your work allows criticism to be more constructive. Second, others can understand better how you arrived at the answer, which can in the case of decision-making give more legitimacy.

Decision-making legitimacy

Legitimacy is a word I have been thinking about often in 2024, a year of elections and continuing global conflicts. Can decisions be seen as legitimate even when there is no perfect solution? I am interested in the basis for decision-making legitimacy, and likely have more to learn. For now, it seems to me that a decision, even one as small as who to invite to represent us at an event, can be seen as legitimate based on whether

  • the individual making the decision has the authority to do so,
  • the principles guiding the decision are seen as worthy and appropriate, and
  • the process is transparent and trusted.

Interestingly, an experimental study considered two other potential inputs to whether decisions are viewed as legitimate: the opportunity for input and whether the outcome is viewed as favorable. The outcome being viewed as favorable mattered more.

I found this discouraging, as inevitably some decisions on behalf of the school will be viewed as unfavorable to some, and I would like those nonetheless to be seen as legitimate. On the other hand, gathering input is time consuming and not feasible for every decision.

What I can work on is to slow down enough to consistently explain the basis for my decisions. And I hope you will also see this as an invitation to provide input into what I consider when making decisions. Even if this does not increase perceived legitimacy, I believe such input can promote progressively better decisions, decisions that are in alignment with our shared mission and values.