Mastering Group Decision-Making: Striking the Perfect Balance
At the heart of any organizational culture is how we make decisions. In traditional organizations, there usually isn’t a particularly conscious agreement about how we make decisions. It’s often the manager who decides, or, if the organization is a bit more democratic, perhaps we might dabble majority vote and consensus decisions. However, those options can also be limiting.
In progressive organizations that espouse values like transparency and autonomy, it’s essential to learn at least two more decision-making methods:
- Consent: This method, as seen in Sociocracy and Holacracy, involves approving a proposal if no one sees any reason to object. If there are objections, the group works to integrate them until the proposal is 'safe enough to try.’
- The Advice Process: Here, an individual seeks advice from those affected by the decision and those with expertise before making a decision.
However, as I have written about before, reimagining organizations is not just about new structures. If we want to transform how we make decisions in our organizations, we need to not only learn new decision-making processes, but practice the ways of being and soft skills that go with those new processes as well.
Problems when experimenting with new decision-making methods
Here are three main problems I’ve encountered again and again with groups that try out more collaborative decision-making methods:
- Power-over – One or more group members dominate (consciously or unconsciously), and the others are less involved/outspoken.
Example: The founder voices a strong opinion early in the decision process and other group members abstain or side with them because they don't trust that it's truly the group's decision (or that the founder will stand by the group's decision).
- My preference – Decisions keep stalling because people raise objections but their objections are coming more (or only) from personal preference rather than from what's best for them and the group (or what's 'safe to try'). No one challenges the objections.
- False harmony – Nobody has the courage or confidence to voice objections or concerns and so the decision suffers from lack of suggestions for improvement and, once it’s approved, lack of commitment and ownership.
The cumulative effect of these symptoms can result in outcomes such as a lack of innovation or forward momentum, a climate of cautiousness, resentment and gossiping, decision fatigue, erosion of trust, diminishing motivation, soulless meetings – the list goes on. So besides learning new decision-making processes, what can we do?
Finding the sweet spot in collaborative decision-making
Whether you are using asynchronous decision-making tools like Loomio or Murmur, or engaging in a synchronous, ‘live’ discussion, it’s important to practice how to be in the sweet spot between a constructive and destructive discussion.
If we’re too far over into the constructive side, we can end up stuck in false harmony with no one daring to object or voice a dissenting opinion.
Moves to help you escape the constructive trap
- Be open with what’s yours: Find your opinion and have the courage to express it, especially if you are an outlier. It really is a contribution! Dare to share your feelings and be vulnerable, rather than trying to look good or ‘win’.
- Delight in divergence, disagreement and dissent: People who disagree or have another perspective offer a gift to the group. Usually there is some wisdom in what they are sharing, an idea that will improve a proposal. Even if there isn’t, it’s an opportunity to create a culture of inclusion and involvement, to truly listen to and acknowledge their position and humanity. When people feel heard and seen, they are much more willing to consider a proposal outside of their own preferences.
And of course, if we tip too much into the destructive side of discussions, we end up with individuals being rigid or dominating. If someone is good at arguing, they may ‘win’, but it won’t be a truly collaborative decision.
Moves to help you escape the destructive trap
1. Be open to what’s theirs: Consider there is something valuable in other people’s viewpoints, opinions and feelings, especially if you don’t agree. Be curious and take some time to dig deeper by asking questions like: “What are you worried about?”, “What are you feeling?”, “What's important to you about [their words]?”
2. Cultivate willingness: “We remain attached to our narrowly defined self-interest only because of lack of trust that anything else would work, or that anyone else would care.” - Miki Kashtan
In order to find a proposal or solution that isn’t achieved by domination or compromise, it is essential that we listen to each other’s needs, in line with a shared commitment to reaching a good outcome for the group. If we take the time to do this, we are often surprised by what becomes possible and available to us in the ‘mutual willingness’ zone.
Final tips for leveling up collaborative decision-making capacity
In a progressive organisation, we want to be agile when it comes to decision-making. Many standard decisions can be entrusted to a particular role or team. However, for significant decisions—those that affect many people, have long-term impacts, or involve high risks—we need to invest time in developing our capacity for collective decision-making. Initially, it might feel slow, but over time, we will become more skilled and efficient at reaching satisfying outcomes, even when things get tricky. Here are some tips.
- Find your sweet spot – aim to create a climate (whether virtual or in-person) in which you can have engaged, open and tough discussions about each other’s thoughts, feelings and needs in order to reach a truly collaborative decision. Encourage each other to be brave and respectful.
- Practice being able to be in the groan zone – the groan zone is that moment where it feels like you will never be able to converge on a decision. Instead of freaking out or rushing to get to a solution, recognize that this is part of the process. It can even help to name it: “Wow, it seems like we all have many different ideas on how to move forward here. What’s needed now, then?”
- Listen beneath the surface – in addition to the discussion happening ‘above the surface’ about the proposal, there is an ocean of activity happening ‘under the surface’. Interpersonal dynamics. Someone not feeling heard. Someone else is dominating. If you can pay attention to this, and put words to what you’re picking up, it can be a real contribution to the group. You don’t need to solve it; again just naming it can help the group decide together what to do with it.
- Do a decision autopsy – pick a collaborative decision you took recently that didn’t go well. Reflect together on what was missing. Were you too much in the constructive zone? Or too much in the destructive zone? What would you do differently next time? Any agreements that feel important to clarify about how you make decisions?
By mastering collaborative decision-making and embracing the sweet spot between constructive and destructive discussions, organizations can foster innovation, trust, and successful outcomes.