There are so many ways well-intentioned group decision-making can go wrong. Have you ever been stuck in a 5-hour meeting that stopped being relevant to you after 5 minutes? Or have you ever felt the frustration that can come with discovering you were excluded from a decision-making meeting about something that impacts your life? Either way, your feelings of upset are real.
These decision-making errors stem from two competing myths about what ideal group decision-making looks like. In our hierarchical, mainstream American culture, some people are taught that decision-making is about power and competition and that the goal is for each person to “win” the meeting by asserting dominance and pushing through their preferred idea. I was raised in a hippie community where I was taught the opposite - that consensus is the only ethical decision-making model. Yet both of these myths can cause big problems for groups, and both stem from group members missing key information about how to make decisions together.
Making decisions of any size is an important skill. From what snacks to serve at the meeting to the existential purpose of the group, it’s critical to learn how to go about making group decisions efficiently and ethically.
In my earlier post for Meeteor, I talked about how to make principled group decisions. In this post, I’ll talk about how different decision-making models can serve you in different situations.
Choose from multiple decision-making models
In my consulting work, I teach that there is a spectrum of decision-making models ranging from unilateral, in which one person decides alone, to consensus, in which the entire group comes to an agreement. Consultative decision-making is the middle choice and can take different formats, such as:
A leader can consult with the group, gathering their opinions and ideas, and then decide separately.
A group can talk together for a set amount of time and then delegate a person or a small committee to make a final decision. For example, a facilitator might say, “We have 10 minutes left in the meeting. If we can reach a decision in that allotted time, we’ll follow that decision. If we’re unable to come to a conclusion, 3 of us will meet separately to consider the group’s discussion and come to a decision after the meeting.”
Match the decision-making model to the context
There’s no one right strategy for all situations. As described in the classic 1974 decision-making model argued by theorists Vroom and Jago, the task of an effective group is to learn to work flexibly together to match the best decision-making model to the context. Here are some guidelines you can consider when choosing which model to use.
Unilateral decision-making is best when the issue being decided is:
Unimportant to the group. If you are choosing which flavor donuts to bring to the meeting, it’s ok to make your best guess and unilaterally decide.
Time-sensitive. If you have 3 hours to design and print a poster for an event, you likely will not have time to call a committee meeting and co-design each element. Unilaterally deciding on a color scheme would be important for meeting the deadline.
Dangerous. If you see a child standing in the road and a car is approaching, don’t turn to the person next to you to discuss what to do - act quickly and move them out of the way! If you’re out of time and in a dangerous situation, you need to make your best guess and act.
Consensus decision-making is best when:
You have lots of time. If you are on a 10-day retreat, maybe you do have time to make a consensus decision about those donut flavors.
You need a high level of group buy-in. If you are making a decision about something that will deeply impact the group members, and that the members will need to stand behind and implement, it might also be important to take the time to reach full agreement as a group. For example, if you are an activist group deciding on which campaign to commit to for the next year, a campaign that will require dedication and work from all involved, it might be important to decide together.
Consultative decision-making is best when:
You have some time, but not unlimited time. Consultative decisions help you match the length of your process to the time you have available.
The group needs to feel included, but not everyone needs to be involved in every step. Consulting the group can help the people delegated to make the final decision more representative of the group’s will without having everyone sit through the entire decision-making process.
Follow these steps for a consensus or consultative-style process
When you have time, consensus or consultative-style decisions are beneficial in helping group members feel included, respected, and interconnected. Plus, you often get better decisions when multiple perspectives are included in some way (2-6 people is the ideal number).
There are many consensus processes you can try that offer detailed procedures for groups. When time allows, consensus and consultative decisions help groups make better-informed decisions and convey that every person in the group matters.
Here’s an example of how you might proceed if you are part of a group that wants to try a simple consensus-style discussion about making a rain plan for an after-school program soccer game.
Step 1: Share
First, open the floor and encourage the group to share as much relevant information as possible. For example:
“The weather report said it will likely rain until 9 pm.” “I noticed that most of the kids seem to have a lot of energy today and a lot of them are coming right from school.”
Step 2: Listen
Instruct the group to focus on working to comprehend the holistic meaning of what each person is saying and to ask for clarification if needed. For example:
“It sounds like you’re worried that kids have been sitting all day and are thinking we should plan an activity that will let them run around - do I have that right?”
Whether or not you’re the official facilitator, paraphrase what you hear and ask open questions to help the group members hear one another. For example, say,
“It sounds like most of us are committed to choosing an alternative activity that will still be very active. Does anyone have another idea about this?”
Step 3: Propose
If you start to notice that the group is focusing in on a shared idea, propose that idea to the group and ask others to react. For example, say,
“Based on what I’m hearing, I have a proposal. How about we use the gym to set up an indoor soccer field and use the gym mats as the boundaries. What does everyone think of that?”
Step 4: Keep listening
Listen for information, ideas, or concerns that haven’t surfaced yet. The more information and the greater diversity of perspectives you have, the more informed your decision will be.
“Elena, I just want to check with you because others have already spoken - is there anything you’d like to add to this that hasn’t come up yet? Would you be willing to share your thoughts on this idea?”
“OK, so we’ll play a game of indoor soccer on a makeshift field! David, it sounds like you’re feeling tired today and are less excited about playing soccer - do you want to take on the role of leading a card game with the kids who don’t want to play?”
Step 5: Close
The individuals in the group don’t need to feel equal excitement about the outcome. The goal is to reach an outcome that everyone can live with and that doesn’t violate anyone’s ethical values.
Make it a practice to be clear about which decision-making model you’re using, otherwise, group members can feel confused or even betrayed. When I lead groups, I make it a priority to hold a decision-making workshop early on and to remind the group before any decision which model I’m using and why. This helps the group feel oriented and powerful.
Although it might be comforting if there were always one right way to go about making decisions, I love that there are many ways that groups can ethically and effectively make decisions together. The constraints on our time and bandwidth are real, and so are our needs for our voices to be respected and considered. Great leaders learn to help groups choose from all of the decision-making models on the spectrum to balance speed and collaboration. The more comfortable we are using all of the models above, the more ready we are to face a range of challenges and to make decisions we can stand behind with pride.