by Jane Haskell
As you know, one of the primary functions of groups is to make decisions. We have a problem → we need to change something → we need a decision. This is easier said than done, at times.
Some groups get locked into the idea that all decisions need to be made ‘by consensus’. Not so! All groups have six basic and distinct decision-making options available.
Each of these options, of course, has its pros and cons; each represents a different approach. The decision option should always be chosen carefully to be sure it’s the most appropriate method for the decision that’s before the group. The six options are:
This happens occasionally when there’s a solution that is favored by everyone and 100 percent agreement seems to happen automatically. These types of decisions are usually made quickly and automatically. They are fairly rare and often occur in connection with the more trivial or simple issues.
PROS: it’s fast, easy, everyone is happy; it unites the group.
CONS: may be too fast; perhaps the issue actually needed discussion.
USES: when lack of discussion isn’t vital (i.e. issues are trivial); or when issues are not complex, requiring no in-depth discussion.
One Person Decides
This is a decision that the group decides to refer to one person to make on behalf of the group. A common misconception among teams is that every decision needs to be made by the whole group. In fact, a one-person decision is often a faster and more efficient way to get resolution. The quality of any one person’s decision can be raised considerably if the person making the decision gets advice and input from other group members before deciding.
PROS: it’s fast and accountability is clear. Can result in commitment and buy-in if people feel their ideas are represented.
CONS: it can divide the group if the person deciding doesn’t consult or makes a decision that others can’t live with. A one-person decision typically lacks in both the buy-in and synergy that come from a group decision-making process.
USES: when the issue is unimportant or small; or when there’s a clear expert in the group; or when only one person has the information needed to make the decision and can’t share it; or when one person is solely accountable for the outcome.
A negotiated approach is applicable when there are two or more distinct options and members are strongly polarized (neither side is willing to accept the solution/position put forth by the other side). A middle position is then created that incorporates ideas from both sides. Throughout the process of negotiation, everyone wins a few favorite points, but also loses a few items he or she liked. The outcome is, therefore, something that no one is totally satisfied with. In compromises, no one feels he or she got what he or she originally wanted, so the emotional reaction is often, “It’s not really what I wanted, but I’m going to have to live with it.”
PROS: it generates lots of discussion and does create a solution.
CONS: negotiating when people are pushing a favored point of view tends to be adversarial; hence this approach divides the group. In the end everyone wins, but everyone also loses.
USES: when two opposing solutions are proposed, neither of which are acceptable to everyone; or when the group is strongly polarized and compromise is the only alternative.
This is a priority-setting tool that is useful for making decisions when the group has a lengthy set of options and rank ordering the options, based on a set of criteria, will clarify the best course of action.
PROS: it’s systematic, objective, democratic, non-competitive and participative. Everyone wins somewhat and feelings of loss are minimal. It’s a fast way of sorting out a complex set of options. Often feels consensual.
CONS: it’s often associated with limited discussion, hence, limited understanding of the options. This may force choices on people that may not be satisfactory to them, because the real priorities do not rise to the surface or people are swayed by each other if the voting is done out in the open, rather than electronically or by ballot.
USES: when there’s a long list of alternatives or items from which to choose or when choosing a set of criteria to identify the best course of action.
This involves asking people to choose the option they favor once clear choices have been identified. Usual methods are a show of hands or secret ballot. The quality of voting is always enhanced if there’s good discussion to share ideas before the vote is taken.
PROS: it’s fast and decisions can be of higher quality if the vote is preceded by a thorough analysis.
CONS: it can be too fast and low in quality if people vote based on their personal feelings without the benefit of hearing each other’s thoughts or facts. It creates winners and losers, hence dividing the group. The show of hands method may put pressure on people to conform.
USES: when there are two distinct options and one or the other must be chosen; when decisions must be made quickly and a division in the group is acceptable; when consensus has been attempted and can’t be reached.
This involves everyone clearly understanding the situation or problem to be decided, analyzing all of the relevant facts together, and then jointly developing solutions that represent the whole group’s best thinking about the optimal decision. It’s characterized by a lot of listening, healthy debate and testing of options. Consensus generates a decision about which everyone says, “I can live with it.”
PROS: it’s a collaborative effort that unites the group. It demands high involvement. It’s systematic, objective and fact-driven. It builds buy-in and high commitment to the outcome.
CONS: it’s time-consuming and produces low-quality decisions if done without proper data collection or if members have poor interpersonal skills.
USES: when decisions will impact the entire group; when buy-in and ideas from all members are essential; when the importance of the decision being made is worth the time it will take to complete the consensus process properly.
Remember that each option has its place, so choose the most appropriate method before each decision-making session.
Next month, I will write more about understanding consensus. This Decisions Options Chart is a handy reference that I have seen many group leaders use when they are trying to help a group decide which decision-making option to use. We also use this chart in STRENGTHENING YOUR FACILITATION SKILLS, LEVEL 1.
Things to Watch for in Decision-making
Decision-making is rarely easy. The following are some extra tips to help you manage decision-making sessions:
• Be clear on the process to be used right up-front. Explain any tools or techniques that will be used.
• Ask people what assumptions they’re operating under, either about the issue or the organizational constraints. Note these and test them with the rest of the group.
• Conflict is a natural part of many decision-making discussions. Always confront differences assertively and collaboratively. Don’t strive to avoid conflict or accommodate by asking people to be nice and get along.
• Urge people not to fold or just give in if they feel they have important ideas. When everyone agrees just to make things run smoothly, the result is “group think.” This creates poor decisions made just to get it over with and is an attempt to ensure that everyone stays friends.
• If the group has chosen to go for consensus because the issue is important, stick with it even if the going gets tough. Beware of the tendency to start voting, coin tossing, and bargaining to make things easier.
• Be very particular about achieving closure on any items that get decided. Test for consensus and make sure things are final before letting the group move on to other topics.
Material adapted from: Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills, Level 1. Jane Haskell, Louise Franck Cyr and Gabe McPhail. Orono, ME: UMaine Extension, 2007.
• Stop the action if things start “spinning” or behaviors get ineffective. Ask: “What are we doing well? What aren’t we doing so well?” and “What do we need to do about it?” Then act on the suggestions for improvement.
Effective Decision-making Behaviors
To make any decision process work, group members need to behave themselves in specific ways. These behaviors can be suggested to the group or generated as norms in advance of any decision-making session.
Behaviors that Help
• Listening to other’s ideas politely, even when you don’t agree.
• Paraphrasing the main points made by another person, especially if you’re about to contradict the person’s ideas.
• Praising others’ ideas
• Building on others’ ideas
•Asking others to critique your ideas, and accepting the feedback
•Being open to accepting alternative courses of action
•Dealing with facts
•Staying calm and friendly toward colleagues
Behaviors that Hinder
•Interrupting people in mid-sentence
•Not acknowledging the ideas that others have put on the table
•Criticizing others’ ideas, as opposed to giving them useful feedback
•Pushing your own ideas while ignoring others’ input
•Getting defensive when your ideas are analyzed
•Sticking only to your ideas and blocking suggestions for alternatives
•Basing arguments on feelings
•Getting overly emotional; showing hostility in the face of any disagreement