Making Decisions and Solving Problems

Making Decisions and Solving Problems

Rose Aguilar Welch


Problem solving and decision making are essential skills for effective nursing practice. Carol Huston (2008) identified “expert decision-making skills” as one of the eight vital leadership competencies for 2020. These processes not only are involved in managing and delivering care but also are essential for engaging in planned change. Myriad technologic, social, political, and economic changes have dramatically affected health care and nursing. Increased patient acuity, shorter hospital stays, shortage of healthcare providers, increased technology, greater emphasis on quality and patient safety, and the continuing shift from inpatient to ambulatory and home health care are some of the changes that require nurses to make rational and valid decisions. Moreover, increased diversity in patient populations, employment settings, and types of healthcare providers demands efficient and effective decision making and problem solving. More emphasis is now placed on involving patients in decision making and problem solving and using multidisciplinary teams to achieve results.

Nurses must possess the basic knowledge and skills required for effective problem solving and decision making. These competencies are especially important for nurses with leadership and management responsibilities.


Problem solving and decision making are not synonymous terms. However, the processes for engaging in both processes are similar. Both skills require critical thinking, which is a high-level cognitive process, and both can be improved with practice.

Decision making is a purposeful and goal-directed effort that uses a systematic process to choose among options. Not all decision making begins with a problem situation. Instead, the hallmark of decision making is the identification and selection of options or alternatives.

Problem solving, which includes a decision-making step, is focused on trying to solve an immediate problem, which can be viewed as a gap between “what is” and “what should be.”

Effective problem solving and decision making are predicated on an individual’s ability to think critically. Although critical thinking has been defined in numerous ways, Scriven and Paul (2007) refer to it as “ the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Effective critical thinkers are self-aware individuals who strive to improve their reasoning abilities by asking “why,” “what,” or “how.” A nurse who questions why a patient is restless is thinking critically. Compare the analytical abilities of a nurse who assumes a patient is restless because of anxiety related to an upcoming procedure with those of a nurse who asks if there could be another explanation and proceeds to investigate possible causes. It is important for nurse leaders and managers to assess staff members’ ability to think critically and enhance their knowledge and skills through staff-development programs, coaching, and role modeling. Establishing a positive and motivating work environment can enhance attitudes and dispositions to think critically.

Creativity is essential for the generation of options or solutions. Creative individuals can conceptualize new and innovative approaches to a problem or issue by being more flexible and independent in their thinking. It takes just one person to plant a seed for new ideas to generate.

The model depicted in Figure 6-1 demonstrates the relationship among related concepts such as professional judgment, decision making, problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking. Sound clinical judgment requires critical or reflective thinking. Critical thinking is the concept that interweaves and links the others. An individual, through the application of critical-thinking skills, engages in problem solving and decision making in an environment that can promote or inhibit these skills. It is the nurse leader’s and manager’s task to model these skills and promote them in others.

Decision Making

This section presents an overview of concepts related to decision models, decision-making styles, factors affecting decision making, group decision making (advantages and challenges), and strategies and tools.

The phases of the decision-making process include defining objectives, generating options, identifying advantages and disadvantages of each option, ranking the options, selecting the option most likely to achieve the predefined objectives, implementing the option, and evaluating the result. Box 6-1 contains a form that can be used to complete these steps.

A poor-quality decision is likely if the objectives are not clearly identified or if they are inconsistent with the values of the individual or organization. Lewis Carroll illustrates the essential step of defining the goal, purpose, or objectives in the following excerpt from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

Decision Models

The decision model that a nurse uses depends on the circumstances. Is the situation routine and predictable or complex and uncertain? Is the goal of the decision to make a decision conservatively that is just good enough or one that is optimal?

If the situation is fairly routine, nurse leaders and managers can use a normative or prescriptive approach. Agency policy, standard procedures, and analytical tools can be applied to situations that are structured and in which options are known.

If the situation is subjective, non-routine, and unstructured or if outcomes are unknown or unpredictable, the nurse leader and manager may need to take a different approach. In this case, a descriptive or behavioral approach is required. More information will need to be gathered to address the situation effectively. Creativity, experience, and group process are useful in dealing with the unknown. In the business world, Camillus described complex problems that are difficult to describe or resolve as “wicked” (as cited in Huston, 2008). This term is apt in describing the issues that nurse leaders face. In these situations, it is especially important for nurse leaders to seek expert opinion and involve key stakeholders.

Another strategy is satisficing. In this approach, the decision maker selects the solution that minimally meets the objective or standard for a decision. It allows for quick decisions and may be the most appropriate when time is an issue.

Optimizing is a decision style in which the decision maker selects the option that is best, based on an analysis of the pros and cons associated with each option. A better decision is more likely using this approach, although it does take longer to arrive at a decision.

For example, a nursing student approaching graduation is contemplating seeking employment in one of three acute care hospitals located within a 40-mile radius of home. The choices are a medium-size, not-for-profit community hospital; a large, corporate-owned hospital; and a county facility. A satisficing decision might result if the student nurse picked the hospital that offered a decent salary and benefit packet or the one closest to home. However, an optimizing decision is more likely to occur if the student nurse lists the pros and cons of each acute care hospital being considered such as salary, benefits, opportunities for advancement, staff development, and mentorship programs.

Decision-Making Styles

The decision-making style of a nurse manager is similar to the leadership style that the manager is likely to use. A manager who leans toward an autocratic style may choose to make decisions independent of the input or participation of others. This has been referred to as the “decide and announce” approach, an authoritative style. On the other hand, a manager who uses a democratic or participative approach to management involves the appropriate personnel in the decision-making process. It is imperative for managers to involve nursing personnel in making decisions that affect patient care. One mechanism for doing so is by seeking nursing representation on various committees or task forces. Participative management has been shown to increase work performance and productivity, decrease employee turnover, and enhance employee satisfaction.

Any decision style can be used appropriately or inappropriately. Like the tenets of situational leadership theory, the situation and circumstances should dictate which decision-making style is most appropriate. A Code Blue is not the time for managers to democratically solicit volunteers for chest compressions!

The autocratic method results in more rapid decision making and is appropriate in crisis situations or when groups are likely to accept this type of decision style. However, followers are generally more supportive of consultative and group approaches. Although these approaches take more time, they are more appropriate when conflict is likely to occur, when the problem is unstructured, or when the manager does not have the knowledge or skills to solve the problem.

Factors Affecting Decision Making

Numerous factors affect individuals and groups in the decision-making process. Tanner (2006) conducted an extensive review of the literature to develop a Clinical Judgment Model. Out of the research, she concluded that five principle factors influence decision making. (See the Literature Perspective below.)

image Literature Perspective

Resource: Tanner, C. A. (2006). Thinking like a nurse: A research-based model of clinical judgment in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 45(6), 204-211.

Tanner engaged in an extensive review of 200 studies focusing on clinical judgment and clinical decision making to derive a model of clinical judgment that can be used as a framework for instruction. The first review summarized 120 articles and was published in 1998. The 2006 article reviewed an additional 71 studies published since 1998. Based on an analysis of the entire set of articles, Tanner proposed five conclusions which are listed below. The reader is referred to the article for detailed explanation of each of the five conclusions.

The author considers clinical judgment as a “problem-solving activity.” She notes that the terms “clinical judgment,” “problem solving,” “decision making,” and “critical thinking” are often used interchangeably. For the purpose of aiding in the development of the model, Tanner defined clinical judgment as actions taken based on the assessment of the patient’s needs. Clinical reasoning is the process by which nurses make their judgments (e.g., the decision-making process of selecting the most appropriate option) (Tanner, 2006, p. 204):

The Clinical Judgment Model developed through the review of the literature involves four steps that are similar to problem-solving and decision-making steps described in this chapter. The model starts with a phase called “Noticing.” In this phase, the nurse comes to expect certain responses resulting from knowledge gleaned from similar patient situations, experiences, and knowledge. External factors influence nurses in this phase such as the complexity of the environment and values and typical practices within the unit culture.

The second phase of the model is “Interpreting,” during which the nurse understands the situation that requires a response. The nurse employs various reasoning patterns to make sense of the issue and to derive an appropriate action plan.

The third phase is “Responding,” during which the nurse decides on the best option for handling the situation. This is followed by the fourth phase, “Reflecting,” during which the nurse assesses the patient’s responses to the actions taken.

Tanner emphasized that “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” are major processes required in the model. Reflection-in-action is real-time reflection on the patient’s responses to nursing action with modifications to the plan based on the ongoing assessment. On the other hand, reflection-on-action is a review of the experience, which promotes learning for future similar experiences.

Nurse educators and managers can employ this model with new and experienced nurses to aid in understanding thought processes involved in decision making. As Tanner (2006) so eloquently concludes, “If we, as nurse educators, help our students understand and develop as moral agents, advance their clinical knowledge through expert guidance and coaching, and become habitual in reflection-on-practice, they will have learned to think like a nurse” (p. 210).

Internal and external factors can influence how the situation is perceived. Internal factors include variables such as the decision maker’s physical and emotional state, personal philosophy, biases, values, interests, experience, knowledge, attitudes, and risk-seeking or risk-avoiding behaviors. External factors include environmental conditions, time, and resources. Decision-making options are externally limited when time is short or when the environment is characterized by a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude.

Values affect all aspects of decision making, from the statement of the problem/issue through the evaluation. Values, determined by one’s cultural, social, and philosophical background, provide the foundation for one’s ethical stance. The steps for engaging in ethical decision making are similar to the steps described earlier; however, alternatives or options identified in the decision-making process are evaluated with the use of ethical resources. Resources that can facilitate ethical decision making include institutional policy; principles such as autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, veracity, paternalism, respect, justice, and fidelity; personal judgment; trusted co-workers; institutional ethics committees; and legal precedent.

Certain personality factors, such as self-esteem and self-confidence, affect whether one is willing to take risks in solving problems or making decisions. Keynes (2008) asserts that individuals may be influenced based on social pressures. For example, are you inclined to make decisions to satisfy people to whom you are accountable or from whom you feel social pressure?

Characteristics of an effective decision maker include courage, a willingness to take risks, self-awareness, energy, creativity, sensitivity, and flexibility. Ask yourself, “Do I prefer to let others make the decisions? Am I more comfortable in the role of ‘follower’ than leader? If so, why?”

Group Decision Making

There are two primary criteria for effective decision making. First, the decision must be of a high quality; that is, it achieves the predefined goals, objectives, and outcomes. Second, those who are responsible for its implementation must accept the decision.

Higher-quality decisions are more likely to result if groups are involved in the problem-solving and decision-making process. In reality, with the increased focus on quality and safety, decisions cannot be made alone. When individuals are allowed input into the process, they tend to function more productively and the quality of the decision is generally superior. Taking ownership of the process and outcome provides a smoother transition. Multidisciplinary teams should be used in the decision-making process, especially if the issue, options, or outcome involves other disciplines.

Research findings suggest that groups are more likely to be effective if members are actively involved, the group is cohesive, communication is encouraged, and members demonstrate some understanding of the group process. In deciding to use the group process for decision making, it is important to consider group size and composition. If the group is too small, a limited number of options will be generated and fewer points of view expressed. Conversely, if the group is too large, it may lack structure, and consensus becomes more difficult. Homogeneous groups may be more compatible; however, heterogeneous groups may be more successful in problem solving. Research has demonstrated that the most productive groups are those that are moderately cohesive. In other words, divergent thinking is useful to create the best decision.

For groups to be able to work effectively, the group facilitator or leader should carefully select members on the basis of their knowledge and skills in decision making and problem solving. Individuals who are aggressive, are authoritarian, or manifest self-oriented behaviors tend to decrease the effectiveness of groups.

The nurse leader or manager should provide a nonthreatening and positive environment in which group members are encouraged to participate actively. Using tact and diplomacy, the facilitator can control aggressive individuals who tend to monopolize the discussion and can encourage more passive individuals to contribute by asking direct, open-ended questions. Providing positive feedback such as “You raised a good point,” protecting members and their suggestions from attack, and keeping the group focused on the task are strategies that create an environment conducive to problem solving.

Advantages of Group Decision Making

The advantages of group decision making are numerous. The adage “two heads are better than one” illustrates that when individuals with different knowledge, skills, and resources collaborate to solve a problem or make a decision, the likelihood of a quality outcome is increased. More ideas can be generated by groups than by individuals functioning alone. In addition, when followers are directly involved in this process, they are more apt to accept the decision, because they have an increased sense of ownership or commitment to the decision. Implementing solutions becomes easier when individuals have been actively involved in the decision-making process. Involvement can be enhanced by making information readily available to the appropriate personnel, requesting input, establishing committees and task forces with broad representation, and using group decision-making techniques.

The group leader must establish with the participants what decision rule will be followed. Will the group strive to achieve consensus, or will the majority rule? In determining which decision rule to use, the group leader should consider the necessity for quality and acceptance of the decision. Achieving both a high-quality and an acceptable decision is possible, but it requires more involvement and approval from individuals affected by the decision.

Groups will be more committed to an idea if it is derived by consensus rather than as an outcome of individual decision making or majority rule. Consensus requires that all participants agree to go along with the decision. Although achieving consensus requires considerable time, it results in both high-quality and high-acceptance decisions and reduces the risk of sabotage.

Majority rule can be used to compromise when 100% agreement cannot be achieved. This method saves time, but the solution may only partially achieve the goals of quality and acceptance. In addition, majority rule carries certain risks. First, if the informal group leaders happen to fall in the minority opinion, they may not support the decision of the majority. Certain members may go so far as to build coalitions to gain support for their position and block the majority choice. After all, the majority may represent only 51% of the group. In addition, group members may support the position of the formal leader, although they do not agree with the decision, because they fear reprisal or they wish to obtain the leader’s approval. In general, as the importance of the decision increases, so does the percentage of group members required to approve it.

To secure the support of the group, the leader should maintain open communication with those affected by the decision and be honest about the advantages and disadvantages of the decision. The leader should also demonstrate how the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, suggest ways the unwanted outcomes can be minimized, and be available to assist when necessary.

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Aug 7, 2016 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Making Decisions and Solving Problems

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