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Dissertation Abstract

Towards An Understanding of Discernment: A 21st-Century Model of Decision-Making

Hazel C. V. Traüffer
June 2008

Given Bass’ (1990) assertion that decision quality determines leader effectiveness, the question of whether discernment plays a role in decision quality surfaces. Yet, what is “discernment”? Illustrated by the concepts of wisdom and understanding in the Book of Proverbs, an exegesis of the scriptural texts of Proverbs 1:1-7 and Proverbs 8:1-21 help conceptualize discernment as the ability to regulate one’s thinking in the acquisition and application of knowledge to make decisions that are right, fair, and just. This exploratory study investigated its relevance and applicability in contemporary organizations, via in-depth interviews with 8 purposively selected leaders about their decision-making processes and augmented the findings with data from 240 leaders via an online survey. Codes captured the meaning in the interview data, exposing consideration for several factors, including spirituality, concern for others, situational factors, and knowledge in leadership decision-making practices. Scale development, initiated from an item pool of 157 items (reduced to 50 items) and reflecting various values, attitudes, and orientations to knowledge acquisition and application generated from the literature and corroborated by the 8 leaders, operationalized the construct and created a base for the further study of discernment. The 50 items, further reduced to a 14-item threefactor scale, through principal components analysis with oblique rotation, preserved only items that loaded .50 or higher on a factor, without cross-loading. Reliability analysis—assessed as internal consistency and item-scale correlation—revealed Cronbach’s alpha values of .8545 (Courage), .8948 (Intuition), and .8458 (Faith). Differences detected by ANOVA for each factor among demographic groups were submitted to Bonferroni Post-Hoc tests (p < 0.05). Results showed significant differences between intuition and the total number of years in a leadership position and between faith and age, religious affiliation, and leadership affiliation. Using the raw data for these demographics, Pearson’s r correlation (p < 0.01), returned a negative correlation between intuition and the total number of years (r = -.173), a positive correlation between faith and age (r = .273), a negative correlation between faith and religious affiliation (r = -.347), and a negative correlation between faith and network affiliation (r = -.343). Despite limitations, discussions consider implications for theory and praxis, as well as recommendations for further research.