Five common decision-making mistakes and how to avoid them

Teams tend to make decisions in one of three ways. All three approaches have their place and their strengths.  However, trouble arises when we fall prey to overusing one of them. Or when we automatically apply a decision-making style without much thought as to what’s needed for that situation – a kind of ‘knee jerk’ decision-making tactic.

So what are the three common decision-making approaches that teams adopt? They are autocratic, information gathering and consensus and they all take place along a continuum. Let me explain.  

Decision-making continuum

Autocratic decisions work best when the person making the decisions has all the information and authority needed to make the calls. This person doesn’t need to be the leader; members of a team can make autocratic decisions within their scope of responsibilities.

Autocratic decisions are efficient. But if team members believe decision makers lack credibility, execution and levels of buy-in can nose dive.

The Information Gathering approach is best used when the person with the authority to make the decision lacks the data needed to make a good or solid choice. As you might imagine, this approach is when the person solicits others for information and recommendations, while reserving the right to make the final decision.

This approach is more time consuming, but it’s what works for many situations. The ‘watch out’ (see below) is that it can sometimes lead to false expectations among team members. They may believe they’re working towards a consensus decision when, in fact, that’s not what’s happening at all.

A Consensus decision-making process involves teams working together to find mutually satisfying solutions. They keep going until they reach a consensus, more or less. Despite it often being overused and taking the most time, this approach yields higher levels of innovation and ownership.

The trick for teams is to know which decision-making style to use and when.

Here are five common decision-making mistakes teams make:

  1. Overusing either Autocratic or Consensus approaches. We all have a natural tendency towards one of these styles and that’s cool. But overusing your preferred style when the situation warrants something different, isn’t. So the first thing to do is to practice a bit of self-awareness – what is my/our preferred decision-making approach? Next, get into the habit of pausing before making a decision and considering which of these decision-making approaches is the best one for that situation.  
  1. Believing one style is being employed (i.e. consensus) when another style is actually being used (i.e. information gathering). People feel manipulated and frustrated if they think it’s a “we decide” decision, when it’s actually an “I decide” situation. Solution? As the leader, be as transparent as possible about how this decision will be made. Is it that you’ll garner their feedback and make the final decision? Or is this truly a consensus situation? A bit of clarity upfront will reduce the chances of the manipulation factor creeping in.  And people respect transparency, always.
  1. Assuming there’s agreement on problems and solutions when none exists. Lots of teams are conflict-avoidant. We often value harmony over good debate on issues, and that’s not great for team performance. Team members may be unlikely to raise objections for fear of alienating others or themselves. If we’re not aware of this risk and blindly think we’ve reached agreement, when that’s not in fact the case, then you’re likely to come unstuck when it comes to implementing what was decided. Solution? Build trust and a team culture that rewards open and frank debate on the issues. Double check that there’s been no stone left unturned when it comes to everyone’s thoughts on the topic. Seek contrary evidence and check that everyone truly is on board, before you press go.
  1. Taking too long to make a decision or failing to make a decision at all. Many teams and groups suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’ or a lack of intestinal fortitude. It’s often better to make a decision and then modify it as you go along (especially in today’s volatile environment) rather than let an issue languish. Solution? Set yourself and your team parameters for what you need to know (now) and what you’d like to know (in the future), then set a deadline for making a decision. Secondly, ‘stair step’ your decisions. Rather than looking at the decision to be made as a one-time, main event, consider smaller yet actionable decisions that can be made now or that lead up to the main one. Build in a review of your first decision early on to see the impact.
  1. Confusing debate with decision-making. Leaders and teams have not made decisions until there has been some observable change in behaviour. If there is no discernible change, then there has been no real decision. Solution? See point 3. Ask at the end of the debate – so what have we decided? Who is going to do what, as a result of what we have decided? How will we know (behaviour change) that we have succeeded? What will we see?

The best teams (and leaders) know these different decision-making approaches and use the right ones for the right situation. What other tips have you got for teams when it comes to the three decision-making styles?

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2 Comments

  1. Ross Cohen on November 15, 2020 at 1:57 am

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I’d love your thoughts on when the best time to use the different styles is. For example, maybe it makes sense to veer towards autocratic when a decision has to be made right then and there and the cost of doing nothing is extremely high, but to veer towards consensus when timelines are longer and the cost of undoing a decision later are very high. I think it could be very helpful to flesh out the different factors in play in choosing a style. Thanks!

  2. Chris Gladstone on October 29, 2020 at 11:50 am

    A+ from Mrs G! Thank you.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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