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Problem solving styles determine manager's approach to making decisions.

Problem Solving Styles Determine Manager's Approach To Making Decisions

If one process in particular characterizes the manager's or entrepreneur's job it is that of making decisions or solving problems. And the higher the managerial position, the more complex and costly the decisions faced. When you face a decision, how do you go about gathering information? What kinds of data make a more meaningful impression upon you? Do you visualize the "big picture" when making decisions or are you more of a specific facts-and-figures person? To what extent do you rely on intuition or hunches, seeing possibilities without going through a systematic problem solving process? Are your decisions more influenced by human, subjective concerns, or are they highly objective and rational?

A concept gaining rapidly in popularity as a tool for developing managers in areas such as decision making and communication focuses on the elements of an individual's problem solving style. It is based on the work of a Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, whose study of the elements of personality is synthesized in his classic treatise, Psychological Types. His ideas have been refined by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, a mother-daughter team who developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to measure one's problem solving style. Research has shown that the MBTI is the most widely used such instrument in management development with over 1.5 million copies sold each year.

Recognizing your own style

To help you understand the MBTI approach, a short 20-item scale entitled "Identifying Your Problem Solving Style" is included on page 8. Before continuing to read this article, you should complete this scale. Be sure to score yourself using the scoring instructions at the end of the scale. This 20-item measure is not a perfect substitute for the strongly researched, more comprehensive MBTI; however, it should give you a rough idea of your own problem solving style and its implications. The following is an example of the four problem-solving styles:

Sensing vs. intuition: Two ways of perceiving data

An important element of problem solving is how you as a manager perceive information and gain insights from the mass of data that surrounds you. Basically, humans are equipped with two distinctly different ways of doing this -- through the process of sensing through the five senses; and through intuition, the ability to know things without the use of rational thinking processes. The two contrasting sets of characteristics are shown in Table 1.

According to Myers and Briggs, people who rely primarily on sensing tend to be patient, practical, realistic and good with details and facts; those who rely on intuition tend to be impatient, idea and theory oriented, creative and big picture people. Sensing types account for about 75 percent of our population, intuitive types only about 25 percent. Although each of us uses both ways of perceiving at an early age, we develop a preference for one method over the other. Thus, as managers, we tend to use our favorite function and slight the function we enjoy less.

Thinking vs. feeling

Just as there are two ways of perceiving data, there are two basic ways that managers evaluate data to reach conclusions. One way is to think decisions through, whereby they use a logical, rational reasoning process in arriving at conclusions. Another way is to decide through feeling, whereby they use innate processes that rely upon human values and beliefs. Table 2 lists the common characteristics of both groups.

If you trust and prefer thinking, you are skillful in dealing with matters that require logic, objectivity and impartial examination of facts. On the other hand, if you trust and prefer feeling, you tend to be adept at relationships with others and in successfully applying skills in interpersonal and human relations. Roughly, about 60 percent of males are thinkers; about 60 percent of females rely more on feeling.

Combining perception and judgment

If you have completed the scale in the appendix, you now have a rough idea of your own preferences for perceiving data and drawing conclusions. Your decision making/problem solving style thus falls into one of the four categories found in Figure 1.

Sensing-Feeling (SF) types (Category I) approach decisions from a factual standpoint, but because of their feeling orientation they tend to be sympathetic and tactful and highly receptive to others' approval. Persons who fall into this category often choose careers in supervision, sales, customer relations and personnel. Thus, the types of problems typically faced enable them to utilize their preferred mode of perceiving and concluding.

Because SF managers are strong in human relations, they tend to be open and trusting in relations with others. They are normally team players and in leadership positions often develop effective teams because their favorable expectations of others translate into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But while human relations is their strength, SF managers may tolerate inadequate performance longer than warranted, finding it difficult to make disciplinary decisions or decisions that affect people negatively, such as firing or displacement.

Sensing-Thinking (ST) types (Category II) tend to be practical and matter-of-fact and more comfortable in working on problems related to things or numbers rather than to people. They prefer using technical skills employing facts and objects. Persons in this category typically follow careers in applied science, business, engineering, production and construction.

Sensing-thinking managers tend to be exceptionally conscientious in carrying out duties and responsibilities. Major strengths lie in carrying out short term operational planning and implementation as well as organizing and controlling functions of management. Potential major weaknesses are in the area of long term strategic planning and in effectively delegating. Sensing-thinking managers are so conscientious that they frequently go by the old proverb, "If you want it done correctly, do it yourself."

Former President Jimmy Carter has often been credited with a sensing-thinking profile. A trained nuclear engineer, President Carter was described as a "clean desk" executive: fastidiously neat in his handwriting, punctual, precise, logical and rational in his decision making. He was reported to be a good listener and fact reader and could soak up and master masses of facts and data -- the more technical and statistical the better. Carter had an excellent memory that enabled him to put on a dazzling command of facts and figures at press conferences or meetings with legislators. However, it was apparently difficult for him to reconcile substantive differences between sets of data, to recognize when ideas and objectives were in conflict and it was difficult for him to synthesize new facts with those he had stored away earlier.

Our own experiences have led us to conclude that a majority of managers in industry and business students (prospective managers) are sensing-thinking types. In one of our surveys of over 300 bankers who completed the MBTI, 58 percent had this problem solving style.

Intuitive-Thinking (NT) types (Category III) focus on changes and possibilities, and do so in an impersonal, objective manner. They enjoy complex, novel, unstructured problems and are drawn to careers as researchers, scientists, systems designers and analysts, strategic planners, and forecasters. Intuitive-thinking types enjoy running things and many entrepreneurs and top managers have this problem solving style.

Many times intuitive-thinking managers are visionary, dynamic leaders. They are very results-oriented and approach new challenges with energy and enthusiasm. They are sometimes described as "The General" or as a "visionary." A potential weakness is that sometimes they get so involved with the overall mission that they lose sight of important details and facts. For this reason, they often need someone of a sensing type working with them, but they are usually unaware of this need. Another potential problem is that NT managers expect excellence and might fail to give positive feedback to others for achieving it; on the other hand, they are quick to give criticism when things go wrong.

Intuitive-Feeling (NF) types (Category IV) focus on changes and possibilities also, but view these from a personal standpoint of serving others' needs. They are likely to use their creative potential in people oriented positions that are people-focused such as teaching, public relations, marketing and consulting.

Generally, intuitive-feeling managers have good conceptual skills and, while many managers preach participative management, these managers usually practice it. Intuitive-feeling managers are usually enthusiastic and have good communications skills.

Similar to the SF manager, the NF manager is sometimes reluctant to discipline subordinates. Moreover, unlike the ST manager, they may over delegate without implementing controls to see that the delegated assignments are carried out properly.

Former President Ronald Reagan's preferred style was intuitive-feeling. Research has shown that many of his decisions were made on sheer instinct or intuition. Moreover, although he sometimes lacked knowledge of factual details, as was illustrated in one of the 1984 presidential debates with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, he seemed to have a grasp of the big picture and believed policies should be developed on the basis of principles. Without question, he was a master in public and human relations; even many of his opponents liked him. Characteristic of a feeler, Reagan hated to discipline anyone and rarely criticized aides even for sloppy staff work that got him into political trouble.

Implications for working with others

A major problem with people working together effectively is that individuals with different problem solving styles invariably tend to clash. To cite a recent example, one of the authors was called in as a consultant by a top level manager who was having considerable difficulty working with both peers and superiors. Some data gathering with his peers and his boss revealed that they often considered his ideas "blue sky" and impractical. They noted that in team problem solving meetings this man often attempted to move the group from the specific issue at hand to other issues seemingly beyond or unrelated to the issue being addressed.

Perhaps you have correctly diagnosed his dilemma: this manager was a strong intuitive type and the other managers, including his own boss, were strong sensing types. By becoming aware of his own problem-solving style and how it differed from his fellow managers he had adjusted his communication and interpersonal approaches to be more complementary to their problem solving styles. For instance, in presenting new proposals to his boss, the manager would often describe what he intended to do orally and in broad, general terms. Today, he is more likely to state proposals in writing in a more highly structured step-by-step fashion, with greater use of facts and examples. This approach, while initially appearing simplistic and unnatural, has resulted in much better understanding by his boss and by his peers of the points being made.

In another company, the employer had begun a mentor program for promising young executives. No attempt was made to match proteges with particular mentors except where functional specialty was concerned.

Some of the executives complained of incompatibility with proteges and bailed out of the program. Interviews with proteges and mentors from failed mentor pairs revealed that problem solving styles were diametrically opposed and influenced the partners' willingness and ability to cooperate with one another. Many of the executives were intuitive-thinkers demanding extraordinary insight and creativity from proteges who were sensing-feeling problem solvers. Even though they were eager to please their mentors, the proteges' limited role obligations in their current jobs had stifled creativity and initiative and they could not respond on demand to the brainstorming required by the mentors.

As a consequence of gaining insight about the differences in their approach to problem solving, most of the participants agreed to renew the mentor-protege relationships. It was necessary for the mentors to resume at a slower pace, exercise patience, provide positive feedback, and occasionally to prompt creative thinking on the protege's part. The process has engendered trust between managers at different levels and expanded executive networks.


Your preferences for different decision making styles are an integral part of your personality. You might think of it in terms of whether you're right or left have a preference for one hand, and while you can use the other, it is usually slower and requires more concentration. You can do it but it seems awkward and unnatural. Managers and entrepreneurs need to be aware of their decision making preferences and to try to be conscious of their neglected, less preferred side.

One way of doing this is through consultation with others who may see things from a different perspective. Many effective managers that we know are aware of their neglected areas of decision making and actively seek out advice from persons whose styles differ from their own. Thus, sensors may seek advice from intuitives, thinkers may solicit a feeler's advice, and so on. One major advantage of group decision-making is that the acceptance of a wider range of decision styles will help to produce decisions that have been more rigorously addressed from all vantage points. The diversity of problem solving styles present among members can, as we have seen, pose problems for the leader.

Finally, scholars in the leadership area have noted that one key to effective leadership involves developing a positive self-regard. They note that the first step in this process is recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and taking action to build on strengths and overcome, or offset, weaknesses.

As a manager, it is important for you to realize that your decision style reflects factors that are an integral part of your personality. Being aware of the strengths and potential limitations of your style is essential for effective management.

Table 1: How you perceive data.(*)
 Sensing Types Intuitive Types
1. Perceive external 1. Perceive external
 environment in details environment in wholes
 and parts. and patterns.
2. Oriented toward realism, 2. Oriented toward
 facts, concrete possibilities, potential,
 experiences. ideas.
3. Work more steadily, with 3. Work in bursts of energy
 realistic idea of how long powered by enthusiasm,
 things will take. with slack periods in between.
4. Are patient with routine 4. Are impatient with routine
 details. details.
5. Usually reach a conclusion 5. Reach a conclusion
 step by step. quickly.
6. Dislike new problems 6. Enjoy solving new
 unless there are standard problems.

ways to deal with them.
7. Like established ways of 7. Dislike doing the same
 doing things. thing repeatedly.
8. Are patient with routine and 8. Are impatient with routine
 impatient when details and patient with
 become complex. complexity.
9. Seldom make errors of fact. 9. Frequently make errors of
10.Rely upon facts, concrete 10.Rely upon hunches,
 data. inspiration.

(*)Adapted from Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1980), p. 164.

Table 2: How you reach conclusions.(*)

Thinking Types 1. Emphasize logic, objectivity and

rational considerations in

reaching decisions. 2. Focus on objective, impersonal

policies, rules, standards. 3. Tend to decide impartially. 4. Like analysis and putting things

in logical order. Can get along

without harmony. 5. See problems of inefficiency or

ineffectiveness as caused by

systems, processes. 6. May seem detached, cold

impersonal in conclusions. 7. Desire to fit problems and

solutions into formulas. 8. Tend to firm minded.

Feeling Types 1. Emphasize "human"

considerations in reaching decisions. 2. Focus on individual needs,

wishes, desires, values. 3. Tend to decide based on their

own or others' personal likes. 4. Dislike dealing with problems that

require them to communicate

unpleasantries to others. 5. See problems of ineffectiveness

as caused by interpersonal and

human difficulties. 6. May seem soft-hearted, weak,

emotional in conclusions. 7. Treat problems and solutions

based on individual situation. 8. Tend to be sympathetic. (*)Adapted from Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980) p. 163.

PHOTO : Figure 1: Decision Making--Problem Solving Style Categories

Further reading

Jung, Karl G. Psychological Types (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1923). Briggs, Katherine and Isabel Briggs Myers. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1977). Myers, Isabel Briggs. Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980). Keirsey, David and Marilyn Bates. Please Understand Me. (Delmar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Press, 1978). Moore, Thomas. "Personality Tests Are Back," Fortune, March 30, 1987, pp. 74-82. Donovan, Hedley. "The Enigmatic Pres.," Time, May 6, 1985, pp. 24-33. Mosley, Donald C. and Paul H. Pietri. "Type Profiles and Managerial Styles of Bankers," Journal of Psychological Type, Fall 1985, pp. 41-45. "How Reagan Decides," Time, December 13, 1982, p. 16. Bennis, Warren and Burt Nanus. Leaders (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

Donald C. Mosley, Ph.D., is professor of management at the University of South Alabama and president of Synergistic Consulting Group, a Mobile, Alabama-based firm specializing in organizational development. Fabius P. O'Brien, Ph.D., is associate professor of management at the University of South Alabama and principal associate of Evergreen Associates, a Mobile, Alabama-based organization specializing in human resource consulting, training, and development. Paul H. Pietri, D.B.A., is professor of management and director of the business resources center in the College of Business and Management Studies, University of South Alabama.
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Author:Mosley, Donald C.; O'Brien, Fabius P.; Pietri, Paul H.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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