Tower of Babel (Rotterdam) by Pieter Bruegel. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Why We Talk Past Each Other at Work: The 7 Decision Languages

Forrest ChristianOverachievers 3 Comments

I recently sat through a meeting where the discussants, all intelligent people who care deeply about the work under discussion, argued deeply and long without much actually happening. You’ve been in these, too, and you’ve also been frustrated by how people don’t understand when you start talking about what we need to do.

But I now don’t have to live in that frustration because of something I learned from working with Warren Kinston, the polymath biotech entreprenuer, organizational consultant, systems expert, and psychiatrist. People talk past each other about work because they are have fundamentally different modes of decision-making. People simply talk about action differently.

Jimmy Algie did some of the groundwork, which he and Warren then deveoloped further into 7 different modes of decision making. Each one thinks that its way of getting to action is the best. It may accept a couple of the others, but everyone I’ve ever met thinks that at least a couple of the others are complete fools wasting everyone’s time.

You can reduce that a good deal by learning each of the seven.

You can even learn to apply, with effort, a more appropriate decision making approach when the circumstances demand it.

But one or two will always feel like your hometown:comfortable and snug, where everybody uses the right accent and aphorisms.

The following describes each of the 7 in brief. A fuller explanation of them is available in Kinston’s Strengthening the Management Culture (freely available on THEE-Online or by search)


Pragmatic decision-making style is dominated by “what will work right now?” These are your low-hanging fruit people. Eschewing complex solutions or even ones that involve thinking about what someone else wants, the pragmatic decision-maker trusts his gut.

Pragmatic decision styles are dominant in most entrepreneuers.

All successful managers who are accountable for meeting targets will have some form of Pragmatic decision making, even if it is not their dominant style.

My favorite example of Pragmatic decision-making style is Larry the Cable Guy: “Git-R-Done!”


The Empiricist focuses on knowledge. What’s important is to know what the problem is. You spend your time defining the problem, and from there move to building a solution. What are the relevant facts? the Empiricist decider asks. Empiricists know that you can know things. Facts speak for themselves: once you collect them, what you have to do will be obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot.

Most expert decision systems seem to be built around Empiricist deciding. They start with “Problem Statement” and move to “Statement of Facts”, closing with “What You Must Do”.

Many developers work in Empiricist deciding.


The Structuralist decision style first looks at the roles involved. The way to tackle a solution, the structuralist says, is to first determine what roles are involved. Once you know what everyone is supposed to do, then you can see what isn’t being done.

Structuralists focus on accountability and control. One must define the role, the work to be done it, and then select an individual appropriately to fill it.

Most successful Requisite Organization consultants are structuralists. They forego the issues of talent management for talent gearing — who can do this now.


People are the point with Imaginist decision styles. To succeed, we need to maximize the individual’s engagement, to release their inner potential. Work is designed around who is there not some abstract role. What we do is what you can.

The Imaginist decider looks first at what will help the individuals involved — the people here, now — grow personally. They speak about our aspirations and potential.

Leaders with Imaginist decision modes work extraordinarily well when the future is completely unknown. They either provide a singular vision (“We will go to the Promised Land and I will lead you there!”) or enable the team to get to where they want to go (“Let me help you see what you want to do, and then help you get there”).

Because they release potential and speak to our aspirations, Imaginists can often feel pseudo-religious or spiritual. They’re not, or at least not any more than any of the others.

Imaginist decision styles are very common in Agile coaches and many “new age” speakers.


Systemicist decision-making feels like it’s the overarching method, the one that incorporates all the rest, because it can talk about each of the others as a system But it’s not. It’s just another one of the seven.

Using Systemicist deciding, one creates models and looks for interconnections. It can talk intelligently about the other modes (as a system) but it isn’t an overarching mode that it supposes. It’s just another way of looking at deciding.

Pretty much anyone who is doing Systems Theory work like that coming off Checkland and Beer, and Requisiste Organization consultants who focus on long-term succession planning and leadership pipelines (as opposed to simply getting roles right), is dominated by the Systemicist mode.

Dialectical / Political

The Dialetical decision-maker focuses on the groups at work. Each company of any size has divided itself into Tribes, such as Accounting, Marketing, Sales, Production, IT, etc. Sometimes it is even simpler: Joe’s people, Miriam’s folks, Rajesh’s team.

The Dialetical decider asks the question, What can be negotiated that will satisfy everyone? You have to bring groups together and hear their needs, their wants. The tribes are there — denying their reality only puts their conflicts into the shadows.

Some wicked problems that seem intractable get solved this way. The different groups are brought together into a facilitated meeting where they hash out a compromise that they can live with. Famous cases between ranchers, environmentalists, and governmental forestry professionals in the western United States have been resolved in this manner.

In it’s best form, solutions need to be win-win. However, people driven by other decision modes find this cheating or simply untenable.


Rationalist decision making first looks at values and objectives. Here are your planners! To start a work, know what your objectives are. Then, create a plan to achieve those objectives. Let everyone know what the objectives are and build out shared values through set policies so that everyone will be doing the same thing. It’s what Nick Forrest called “getting all the wood behind the arrowhead”.

The Rationalist starts with the question, What are we aiming to do? What do we want to achieve? They believe that the way to achieve anything is through shared values. Teamwork and clear goals, and preferably teamwork to clear goals.

Almost every management consulting group espouses Rationalists deciding.

Comments 3

  1. See the work of lindstone and mitroff re multiple perspectives analyis and why different types of people make different decision.

  2. Have you met people who where very high stratum but couldn’t get themselves to be identified/interested in any of the outlets that contemporary corporate and organizational jobs offer? Is this usually a shutdown/depression reaction (total loss of involvement), blocked energy valves, or could it be genuine incompatibility in a world where everything is about somebodies money all the time, most value talk is bogus, and even alleged non profit NGO have full time managers and entrepreneurs creating their own clientel/problem? I assume if you are high stratum it is likely that you sense how money has taken over everything and is the end game behind everything. Not everybody can be motivated by that. I would even assume that complex thinkers are less likely to. Some may turn away from it all in disgust. What do such people do except suffer? In which fields have you seen those people restore their motivation and energy?

  3. Post

    I had to look them up and was surpised to realize I’d read them before. Kinston is talking about something very specific, just about discussions about work. There are multiple ways we think differently. Kinston’s taxonomy shows how we use words in fundamentally different ways to describe action. Good reminder of these other thinkers.

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