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Group Conflict? Try Principle-Based Decision-Making

Do you hate group decision-making? You’re not alone.

Trying to make a decision, especially in a dysfunctional group, can be extremely unpleasant - unending meetings, circular conversations, bad ideas, and passive aggressive or even openly aggressive conflict.

One of the reasons why decision-making can go so terribly wrong is that many of us were taught unhelpful myths about how to go about it, or were taught nothing at all. In my consulting work, I’ve witnessed one core practice that consistently improves group decision-making, especially when the group is experiencing conflict.

Argue based on Principles, not Preferences

A group’s principles are the underlying criteria and commitments that guide their work. Principles can include our ethical values, organizational goals, or our understanding of fundamental constraints that provide the greater context for our work (such as a principle like, “We will stay within our budget”).

Preferences are our likes and dislikes and can include both long-standing personality-based leanings (such as, “I’ve always preferred one-on-one interactions to large groups,”) or situational mood swings (such as, “I’m so exhausted today, I just want to pick whichever plan will be the least work”).

The difference between making decisions based on principles vs. preferences

What’s the difference between principle-based decision-making versus decision-making based on preferences? Arguing from a place of preferences is unproductive and can harm relationships, while arguing based on principles is a more productive way to have a conversation that leads to a decision. I first learned this practice from Anna Westley at The Rowe Center, where I continue to run a summer program for children.

Imagine you’re part of an after-school program team deciding whether to offer an Olympics-style competition activity for kids. Here’s how arguing based on preferences might go: “That doesn't sound like fun to me. I would hate that! And I would have hated that as a kid.” Principle-based decision-making might sound like this: “One of our principles is to encourage a sense of community in our program. Competitive games erode collaboration.” Even though both statements disagree with the proposal, each framing may result in very different reactions and conversations.

If you’ve ever been in a meeting where preferences took over, you probably have a memory of getting stuck in a destructive gridlock. Why does that happen?

When arguing based on preferences, disagreements become personal

If a person says, “I don’t like the Olympics,” the counterargument is, “How can you not like the Olympics? Are you serious? I love them!” Preferential disagreements can never be argued impersonally, are difficult to resolve, and push the speakers to reject one another as people.

The counterargument to a principled disagreement is another principle

In the example of the after-school program staff raising the principled objection that competition impairs a sense of community, there are ways a group could offer principled counter arguments.

Group members can:

  • Work together to discern whether the principle applies: For instance, the group could look at data together to assess whether there is evidence that competition harms or helps community development.

  • Counter with another principle: For example, someone could say, “Another program goal is to challenge young people to help them grow. I think this Olympics activity meets the criteria of challenging them.”

In both of those cases, the structure of the discussion is that the group is a team joining together to make thoughtful, informed decisions. The more diverse the information, skills, and experiences of the group members, the better the decisions will be.

When groups commit to principle-based decision-making, the task of figuring out how to enact group values is the adversary, and the people in the group are partners in that difficult work. The emotional outcome of working with a group that is joined together to live a set of values and goals can be a sense of incredible cohesion, effectiveness, power, and closeness. Can you picture what it would be like to walk out of a meeting feeling that way?

What are your group’s principles?

It’s impossible to argue based on principles if you don’t know what they are. Try some of the ideas below to gain clarity:

  • If possible, take time to be sure that you are clear about the priorities, principles, and constraints of the broader organizational or community system that you are in.

  • At the start of any significant task or project, schedule time devoted to talking as a group about the guiding criteria.

  • Before every decision, review the criteria relevant for that decision. Although that may sound tedious, it is one of the most important steps you can take to help the group work with unity and speed.

  • If you’d like to see an example of a list of principles, here’s a sample list for the youth program that I lead. My staff reviews this list before making any decisions and refers often to these principles. This practice makes it easier for staff to clearly explain how each small activity within the program relates to our bigger goals and helps bring a sense of purpose and energy to small tasks.

  • If you’re unable to schedule a group or organization-level process, center yourself individually by reflecting personally:

  1. What are the core principles that are guiding my work?

  2. What are the principled commitments of this group?

  3. What are the most important criteria that I’m using to form my positions? Could I clearly explain those criteria to my coworkers?

Steps to try principle-based decision-making with your groups

  1. If you can, arrange for the group to attend a training together about group decision-making. If that’s not possible, read this article together to establish a common language.

  2. Before the discussion begins, clarify the decision-making model and remind the group of the group or organization’s core principles and criteria.

  3. If a participant is speaking and you’re unsure whether they are speaking from their principles, pause the conversation.

  4. Ask, “Can you clarify - is that a preference or a principle?”

  • If it’s a principle, ask them to further explain the principle to the group.

  • If it’s a preference, ask them to either reframe what they want to say as a principle or to hold the comment.

If you’re choosing between principles, pick the one that’s more fun

A benefit of principle-based decision-making is that it helps groups land on decisions that align with their philosophies, as opposed to just their temporary moods, likes, or dislikes. It’s often necessary to make choices that we don’t fully enjoy. Part of what can help us sustain our energy when we’re working on unenjoyable but essential tasks is the knowledge that our efforts are expressing our values and our interconnection with the other people who share our goals. Landing on a decision that we believe in but don’t enjoy doesn’t signal dysfunction - when a group has carefully come to a principled decision, it can be part of being an effective team.

However, what do you do when your group is trying to choose between two principles of equal philosophical value? This is when preferences come in - choose the one that’s more fun!

Group decision-making doesn’t have to be painful. It can be an opportunity for closeness, collaboration, and shared creativity. Try these tips with your group!


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