Understanding complex decision making within the context of safeguarding, reputational risk, and welfare

Clair Cooke, Director of Meliora Safeguarding and Wellbeing Limited, considers the complexities of decision making around safeguarding for leaders, how Social Graces impact on decisions, what can be done to tackle unconscious bias, and the importance of professional curiosity.

Decision making and safeguarding

We all make decisions numerous times a day, but unless it feels significant, we rarely consider the processes that are involved. Decisions about safeguarding are of course significant as they impact on the welfare of individuals, as well as the reputation of the organisation. We want to get them right in order to keep people safe and have the trust of our learners, families, public and other stakeholders.

And as a leader in your organisation, frameworks and standards set by bodies such as Ofsted and the Charity Commission, require that you contribute to building and maintaining a positive safeguarding culture at all times. This involves leading by example to demonstrate the behaviours, attitudes and skills you expect from all staff. Crucially, everyone should feel safe and have the confidence to speak to someone. Paying attention to how we make decisions is fundamental to promoting a positive safeguarding culture because it can:

  • identify organisational or individual bias and assumptions that may undermine good safeguarding practice and culture
  • support a healthy approach to continuous improvement in which the organisation and individuals are willing to reflect, challenge and change for the better.

What’s going on when we make a decision?

Activity: Think for a moment about the last safeguarding or other significant decision you made. What did you think and do? Spend a few minutes reflecting and write your thoughts and actions down.

How did you do? Depending on the type of decision you reflected on, you may have come up with things such as:

  • Check I had as much information as possible
  • Established fact from opinion or hearsay
  • Identified the risks
  • Identified who was at risk
  • Considered what my safeguarding duty was – was it regulatory, legal, policy, moral?
  • What did I need to do to keep everyone safe?
  • Had I come across this before?
  • Did I fully understand what was happening and what I was being told?
  • Were there any cultural factors to consider?
  • Was I being blinkered or biased in any way?
  • Who else did I need to speak to?
  • Where could I get support and guidance?
  • What were the actions and who did I need to involve/tell?
  • Dealing with my own emotional response
  • Dealing with the emotional response of others (including the person abused, their family, staff, the alleged abuser, other learners).

You might also have included in your list that you followed safeguarding policy, procedure and/or other guidance. This is, of course, very important as policies and procedures are external factors which help provide a framework for safeguarding decisions based on expertise, research and learning. In this blog, we will explore internal processes and the factors that can shape and influence our decision making.

These factors are often described as sub-conscious because we are not usually fully, consciously aware of them. Our own personality, beliefs, anxieties and pressures, and the way we understand the world are powerful drivers which shape how we process information that we see and hear in a micro-second and which lead us to the decisions we make. This is why in the list above, I included factors like bias, cultural difference and whether the situation or information has been truly understood.

When influences on decision making remain subconscious, they can lead to prejudice, assumptions and oversights, so it is important to develop and use skills that bring these to the surface to be scrutinised. Fortunately, these skills that can be learned and shared. Let’s take a closer look.

Do I have your attention?

Activity: Take a look at this short video and follow the instructions.

How did you do?

If you did not spot the intruder first time, this is very common. It is due to something psychologists call, “inattentive blindness” and it happens because as humans, we have a limited capacity for what’s known as working memory. Working memory is where information gets placed whilst we are taking things in and, because of this limited capacity, some information is removed to make space for what we are trying to focus on.

This can affect our decision making because when we are focusing hard on one thing, we may miss other information entirely, particularly if we are not looking for it or we don’t know what we are looking for.

Conscious or unconscious influences

Part of being human is that we may choose what information we focus on or prioritise, as well as how we interpret it. This is known as bias. Bias is different from weighing up information and options carefully and having a sound rationale for why more gravitas is placed on certain information. Bias can lead to decisions which are discriminatory or unsafe.

Bias can be:

  1. Conscious – this is where someone knowingly decides to hold biased and prejudicial views about a person or persons. An example of this would be supporting racist groups or political parties.
  2. Unconscious – these are attitudes, beliefs and judgements we all hold about others that we are unaware of.

Here we are going to focus on understanding more about unconscious bias and the checks and balances that can be put in place to control it.

Social Graces

We are all strongly influenced by factors such as our culture, life experience and beliefs. These factors form our identity and create a lens or window through which we see the world and others. It can mean that the way we see, understand and communicate with others who are not like us is ‘filtered’ in such a way that we make incorrect assumptions or judgements. A person who grows up with parents who both work may, for example, assume that this is the best circumstance for all children and hold a disparaging view of parents who are full-time carers for their children.

This filtering is often known as unconscious bias and the elements that cause the distortion have been described by John Burnham (1993) as ‘Social Graces’. In his framework, Burnham identified a number of aspects that are present in each individual’s life and which are responsible for shaping us as human beings. They are part of the human condition but, as professionals, we need to be aware of how Social Graces can impact our thinking, attitudes and behaviour toward others in order to reduce prejudice as far as possible.

Social Graces include:

G = gender identity, geography, generation
R = race, religion
A = age, ability, appearance
C = class, culture, caste
E = education, ethnicity, economics, employment
S = spirituality, sexuality, sexual orientation.

The above factors are not intended to be seen as an exhaustive list.

Activity: Think for a moment about other factors that could be added that you might be influenced by and jot these down (don’t worry about making them fit into the acronym, GRACES).

Other factors that could be added might include:

  • Abuse or trauma
  • Accent
  • Care-experienced or kinship care
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Conflict (nations and family)
  • Disability
  • Ecological e.g. climate, natural disasters, drought
  • Neurodivergence
  • Power
  • Socio-political.

Social Graces are powerful because they can be so deeply ingrained that they feel ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’, which can lead us to view difference as ‘not normal’ or something to be tolerated, rather than embraced and respected. It can also lead us to not challenge our assumptions about others or situations.

Years ago, I was working as a youth and community worker in south east London. The local park was known to be a place where young people would meet to have sex. While talking to a group of teenage girls, some of whom I knew were sexually active, they told me they had been to the local park and had made sure they had taken “protection”. I assumed the girls meant they had taken contraceptives. However, as we talked more, the girls told me what they meant by “protection” was that they had taken a knife with them.

I could so easily have been led by my assumptions to focus on sexual health and healthy relationships and completely miss other important safeguarding issues that this information presented. Fortunately, there are techniques and skills we can all learn to help become more aware of these unconscious influences.

Addressing unconscious bias

Take a moment to watch this video from the Royal Society about unconscious bias. It was made as part of the Royal Society’s commitment to making their recruitment process fairer and it explains how we can unknowingly be influenced by deeply held beliefs. Note the remedial action we can take to reduce the impact of unconscious bias on decision making.

Think again about how unconscious bias (or Social Graces) influenced a recent decision you made. Can you recall the four actions that the Royal Society recommends to reduce the influence unconscious bias?

Consider how these four actions could help you in your decision making and how you could put them into practice:

Deliberately slow down decision making

  • Pause and consider the information, risks and options.
  • Take advice and/or discuss with others e.g. a colleague, local authority safeguarding team.

Reconsider reasons for decisions

  • Think through/discuss the options.
  • What is in the best interests of the individual harmed/at risk?
  • What does the individual want to happen?

Question cultural stereotypes

  • Why do I think or feel this?
  • Do I really understand and appreciate the facts?
  • Have I fully listened?
  • Do I need more information or advice?

Monitor each other for unconscious bias

  • Avoid making decisions alone, unless it is necessary (e.g. emergency).
  • Be prepared to challenge one another in a constructive way.

Of course, often in a safeguarding situation it is not possible to take all the time we would like before making a decision. But it is advisable to pause in order to allow your mind to better process information and respond.

Other types of unconscious bias

Years ago, a children’s educational TV programme called ‘Play School’ would show a film clip during part of the episode. In the studio, there were three differently shaped windows (round, square and arched) and the presenter would choose which shaped window the viewer would look through that day to see the film clip. In a similar way, when making decisions, we choose to look at things through a particular shaped window or perspective, which is based not just on Social Graces but also other factors; both internal and external.

External factors might include:

  • Time constraints and capacity
  • Funding
  • Deadlines
  • Expectations of others, such as governors, local authority, line managers
  • •Lack of information or guidance.

External factors can unconsciously affect how we think and feel, thereby affecting our decisions.

Internal factors can include:

  • Anxiety about ‘getting it right’ or past similar experiences where things ‘went wrong’
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Worry about the consequences of any decision
  • Loyalties – for example, where an allegation is about a well-respected colleague
  • Only considering information that confirms what we already think or want to believe
  • Rejecting or not placing sufficient weight on information from people or sources we don’t like.

You may not be consciously aware of all of the different influences that are present at the time, but they are nevertheless likely to have an impact. This can lead to:

  • Being unwilling to commit to any decision or action
  • Making ‘knee jerk’ reactions or decisions. These decisions are often led by our emotions (e.g. if we feel fearful, angry, offended), and are unlikely to lead to sound decision making
  • Satisficing’ – where we may identify an action or outcome that seems ‘good enough’ and rather than continue to consider all the options, we stop there and settle for that ‘good enough’ decision
  • Short cuts. All of the above may be termed short-cuts as they ‘cut out’ steps to good decision-making practice. Other short cuts might include, for example, doing what you have done before in a similar situation, or just following policy without fully thinking things through.

As a leader, you are responsible for practising good decision making and enabling your staff to do the same. That means developing your understanding of good decision-making practise, applying it and teaching your staff to do the same.

Good decision making

Sadly, many leaders have never been given the opportunity or support to understand what good decision making in safeguarding should be. It can feel like we are left to apply common sense, but, as Einstein reputedly once said, “common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen”. As we have discussed, we need to counteract these human biases.

It may be helpful to think about what a good safeguarding decision is not. It is not about:

  • getting it right
  • covering our backs
  • only committing once we have all the information we need.

The above are impossible to achieve and take the focus away from what is most important; doing the right thing to keep people safe.

One of the most effective ways to address unconscious bias is to develop the habit of professional curiosity.

Professional curiosity

Looking back on my example as a youth worker, a question I could have asked the teenage girls was, “what do you mean by ‘protection’?” Rather than allowing myself to make my own assumption, it would have been useful to check I had understood.

All of the above ways in which unconscious bias can manifest have one common effect. They can close our minds down so that we are no longer inquisitive about what we don’t know; what other options might exist; what the young person or adult affected might think.

By developing a habit of professional curiosity in our own everyday approach and with our staff, we allow ourselves to be open to new information and perspectives which may well lead to a more informed decision.

“For useful change to happen we sometimes need to become less certain of the positions we hold. When we become less certain of the positions we hold we are more likely to become receptive to other possibilities, other meanings we might put to events. If we can become more open to the possible influence of other perspectives, we open up space for other views to be stated and heard.”
Mason (1993, p195, as cited by RiP)

There are lots of tools that can help to develop a sense of professional curiosity, some of which are listed in the resources section at the end of this blog. If you have not come across professional curiosity before, you can find a handy one minute guide here.

Time and again, the learning from Child Safe Practice and Safeguarding Adults reviews reminds us that, as professionals, we must work together with other agencies better and be willing to change our minds, if needed. Changing our minds can feel counter-intuitive, and indeed a painful process, but it is essential to good decision making.

Activity: I’d like you to think about a recent time where you had a difference of opinion with a colleague or other professional. For the purpose of this activity you can think about an occasion in your personal life, if you prefer.

As you reflect on the discussion, identify what thoughts and feelings were going on for you at the time. Did you find it easy to be genuinely open to listening to the other’s point of view; how did it feel to consider that you might need to re-evaluate your beliefs or opinions?

As we saw earlier, our opinions and beliefs are shaped by Social Graces and these can be so deeply entrenched that to have them challenged can feel like it is a personal challenge and even a threat to our personal identity. When we feel threatened or uncomfortable, our reaction is often to close down in order to protect ourselves. A helpful way to address this tendency in ourselves and in others is to cultivate an open mind.

Challenging how we think

“One of the hallmarks of an open mind is not letting your ideas become your identity. If you define yourself by your opinions, questioning them is a threat to your integrity. If you see yourself as a curious person or a lifelong learner, changing your mind is a moment of growth.”

The above quote comes from Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his book, Think Again, Grant explains how we tend to adopt one of three mindsets when we think and speak:

  • Preacher mode is when we are convinced we are right and we adopt techniques to try to convince others and bring them around to our point of view.
  • Prosecutor mode is when we are trying to prove someone else is wrong, unwilling to acknowledge strong points in their argument.
  • Politician mode is when we attempt to win the approval of others and say what they want to hear.

The problem with each of these modes is that they keeps our minds closed and may close the minds of those we are interacting with. Grant suggests that we are much better served by adopting the mode of scientist, where we are willing to continue to gather and consider information which may confirm or rebut our ideas. This mindset is open to change, challenge and learning, and is much more conducive to the decision-making process. When we are willing to detach from our beliefs and don’t see them as crucial to defining our identity, we are more able to consider we may have blind spots; biases and assumptions that stop us from being professionally curious.

Hindsight scrutiny

Ultimately, the best decision we can hope to make at any time is one that would stand up to scrutiny in the future, should it be called into question. This requires that we have done our best to be self-aware of those unconscious biases by being reflective, professionally curious and open to changing our mind.

Activity: Reflection: before you finish, take a few moments to note down what you have a learned and what you will do differently as a result. What will this look like; when will you do it; and who will you tell?


  • Bet you can’t do this! – Tricks, illusions, maths or science? (9/9), Open Learn (video)
  • Understanding unconscious bias, the Royal Society (video)
  • PSDP – Resources and Tools: Safe Uncertainty, Research in Practice, 2019
  • Grant, Adam, 1981, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know