The delicate dance of decision making: steps to do it well with groups

When it comes to making decisions in a group, there are ways to do it well and many more ways you can stuff it up. As a leader, it’s worth knowing what’s what, as there’ll likely be plenty of times when you need to engage your team in a group decision making process. It might be around planning or operationalising a team strategy, solving a gnarly problem or even how you’re going to work together better.

So, how do you ensure you land in the ‘doing it well’ camp?

  1. Get clear up front: on the problem or opportunity you’re trying to solve, as well as what success looks like, people’s roles and the decision-making process you’re going to adopt.  If people are going to be involved in a decision, make sure they know which of the decision-making styles you’ll be using – are they being asked to consult or do they have a real vote? When asked for an opinion, people often assume they have a vote and can feel misled if they discover later that’s not the case.

When people know ahead of time what their role in the decision-making process is, they’re less likely to resent or undermine a decision that doesn’t go the way they wanted. See here for more on the different decision making approaches you can take and some tips on which one to use when.

  1. Build psychological safety, trust and perceived fairness into the group decision making process. If you want people to share opinions and engage in constructive disagreement, they need to feel they can speak up without fear of getting their head bitten off or of being ostracised by the group. You likely know you need to actively encourage everyone to reflect and discuss divergent opinions, doubts, and experiences in a respectful manner. But how do you best do that, especially when it may be fraught?

First, focus feedback and ideas on the ‘thing’, not on the person. Encourage people to share information widely ­– preferably in raw form – to allow everyone to draw their own conclusions.

Second, model and encourage everyone to express comments as suggestions, not as a mandate or entrenched position. When disagreements revolve around ideas and interpretations rather than entrenched positions, conflict is generally healthy.

Third, express feedback in a way that shows you empathise with, and appreciate, everyone working towards your joint goal. Thank people for their ideas, especially when their idea is an outlier. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but you want to avoid group think. Engender curiosity by asking them to elaborate further and encouraging others to build on the ideas.

Top tip: Collect opinions independently. The collective knowledge of a group is only an advantage if it’s used properly. To get the most out of your team’s diverse capabilities and ideas, try gathering opinions individually before people share their thoughts within the wider group.

Extra tip: Break up natural coalitions. Assign people without consideration of traditional loyalties. Get people with different interests to work together.

  1. Finally, know when it’s time to make a decision. You can’t please all the people all of the time. Collaborative decision making is a good thing, but too much collaboration is not. Don’t overdo it, or end up in a talk-fest that lasts forever. Great group decision making relies on knowing when to stop the discussion and make a decision.

Are you deciding too early?

In a group situation, worries about being seen as a dissenter can make people accept the first plausible option rather than thoughtfully analysing the options. Beware the binary when you are choosing between two options. Is there a third possibility that you could put into the consideration set?

Also watch for latent discontent through people’s body language. Ask people to speak up if they have any concerns. Seek input from people who are known for challenging the status quo or asking the hard questions, as well as those who are quiet or are outliers.

Are you deciding too late?

When it seems like you’re going around in circles, or when people are restating their positions repeatedly, that’s likely a sign that it’s time to make a decision. Born out of a desire for fairness, it’s possible to feel like we need to resolve every question before reaching closure.

To escape these endless loops, announce a decision. In doing so, accept that decision making is ambiguous. Life’s not that clear. There will always be risk. You hardly ever have total and complete information. Sometimes you’ve got to move forward with the best of everything you have to hand.

Group decision making has definite advantages, but it’s not always easy. Different personalities and perspectives both help and hinder the process. But following these steps above puts you on the right footing from the get-go.

And remember, the process of group decision making very rarely ends when the decision has been made. Move on too quickly at your peril. Once you’ve made your decision, get clear on who, how and when you will communicate the decision. And consider whether there are any next steps or actions that need to be taken as a result. It’s important that the group involved in the decision making process see something come from the outcome too.

1 Comment

  1. Chris Gladstone on May 26, 2021 at 10:13 am

    Thank you! Another great discussion coming up for our Leadership Team thanks to your writing.

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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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