How to Avoid Team Decisions That Plop

When was the last time you were with a group of people that needed to make a decision, where people tossed out ideas and at least one suggestion was totally ignored? If you’re like most of us, it was probably within the last few weeks, whether in a business meeting or a social setting.

Did you realize that the group actually did make a decision? The decision was “no” – it just wasn’t acknowledged. Teams are constantly making decisions, often without first being clear about how the decision will be made.

When teams are not clear on how their decision will be made, they often don’t make the best decisions.

For instance, we often assume that silence means consent—if you don’t say anything you are in favor of the proposal.  Yet this assumption is frequently wrong.  Have you ever been in a meeting where someone said, “Alright, it’s agreed we will do it” and then after the meeting ended, members shared reservations and questions? Unfortunately, the implementation of these decisions then falls on those who did not support or understand the decision.

Once a team decision is made, it is extremely difficult to undo.

Six Ways Teams Make Decisions

There’s a big pay-off to deciding ahead of time which decision-making method your team will use. Next time your team is facing a decision, consider these six possible decision methods. With the exception of the first method, there is no one best way—there’s an upside and a downside to each.

  1. Decision by lack of response (“decision by plop”).  This is the most common and least visible team decision-making method. Someone proposes an idea and before anyone responds, someone else suggests another idea and the conversation moves on. Because no one acknowledged that a decision had been proposed, the suggestion “plops.” It might have been a good idea that didn’t get to be explored. And even if it wasn’t, because it was not acknowledged, the person who made the suggestion also feels unacknowledged, which can affect their willingness to contribute in the future.
  2.  Decision by authority.  This is where the team leader makes the final decision.  The team leader might announce to the team that a decision has been made or might invite the team to offer ideas and hold a discussion. It’s important that the team understand upfront that they are simply offering input. If they think this is a team decision and then their ideas are ignored, they will feel resentful.
  3.  Decision by minority.  Sometimes it makes sense for those with the most information and closest to the situation to make the final decision. However, other times this decision-making method can be undermining. One of the commonest complaints of team members is that they “feel railroaded.” This happens when two or more members come to a quick, strong, verbal agreement on a course of action, ask quickly, “Does anyone object?” and if no one raises his voice in two seconds, proceed with “Let’s go ahead, then.”  The trap in this situation is the assumption that silence means consent.
  4.  Decision by majority.  Majority rule is usually obtained by voting or polling.  Majority rule is often assumed to be appropriate for all team situations because it reflects democratic political systems.  However, it does not ensure the decision will be supported and smoothly implemented. This method works best with larger groups.  In smaller groups, if you do resort to voting, it is often best to set the majority at 75% or greater, rather than using a simple majority.
  5.  Decision by consensus.  One of the most effective but also time-consuming methods of team decision-making is to seek consensus.  Consensus is where every member of the team can say, “I believe everyone understands my initial point of view.  I clearly understand the viewpoint of the decision we have made and am prepared to support it, even if it doesn’t reflect my original view.”  Consensus takes longer to achieve, but implementation is faster because the decision is understood and supported by all. Make sure you have true consensus and not just lip-service and don’t assume that silence means consensus.
  6.  Decision by unanimous consent. This is where everyone truly agrees on the course of action. It’s easiest for simple decisions like, “should we break for lunch right now?” or urgent decisions like “I see smoke. Let’s get out of the building.” For complex, important decisions, this is the logically perfect but least attainable kind of decision, and consensus may be enough, if it is real consensus.

Questions to Consider

  • How effective is your team at decision-making?
  • What type of decision-making method does your team tend to use?
  • Are you clear before you make a decision, how the decision will be made?
  • 22 comments to How to Avoid Team Decisions That Plop

    • Jesse, love the post and topic! Near and dear to my heart. One of the most powerful tools teams can apply is a simple question of, “How are we going to decide?” Just getting the dialogue rolling on this can open the door to the needed process discussion. OF course, then there are are the “group decision traps,” but that’s a post/comment for another day! -Art

      • It is amazing how asking a simple question can open the door to a much needed discussion. Yes, there is much more to be said on this subject, including how do you decide which decisions should be made by the group and which by individuals. Indeed, posts for another day. Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation, Art!

    • Jesse, great job!
      I think that the most important tools of management is to know how to decide. This is the diffence between great leaders and others.
      Is our mission help the leaders generations to use the important tips that you share.
      Blessings

      Rodrigo
      @rodrigo1000K

    • Micah Yost

      As leaders of teams, maybe one of the best things we can do is help our teams decide how to decide.

      Another significant issue with the “decision plop” is the lack of accountability. When there is no acknowledgement that a decision has been made, there is no accountability or follow through. Often you show up to the next meeting and the discussion is on why nothing got done! Ugh, what a terrible cycle…

      Micah Yost
      @GroupThrive

      • I agree that lack of accountability and follow through becomes a major issue when the decision making process is not clarified in advance – not only for decisions by “plop” but also in cases where “decision by minority” happens because of “railroading.” Great description of the effect. “Ugh” is right! Thanks for further illuminating these points, Micah.

    • Jesse,

      I really like this post! As you pointed out, if you don’t speak up when a decision is made, you are basically choosing that decision. As the old saying goes, when you fail to make a decision you choose to fail. Each of the other methods can be very successful when used appropriately. Thanks for the great post!

      • Hi Brandon, You raise an important point. Often when a few people push through a decision and others don’t speak up, we tend to blame the people who pushed through the decision saying they “railroaded” it (decision by minority at its worst). However, those who remain silent are actually complicit, as you point out: “if you don’t speak up, you are basically choosing that decision.”

    • Great job Jesse! I am currently participating in a leadership forum with a dozen other non-profit executives and we are currently looking a teamwork. With your permission I would like to forward this to our group. Thanks!

    • This is a great post. “For instance, we often assume that silence means consent—if you don’t say anything you are in favor of the proposal. Yet this assumption is frequently wrong.” I often see the painful result of this as people are not aware of their cultural differences getting in the way of progress. It took me a while to learn that if we are sitting as a team discussing something, refraining from objecting due to my “respect” for the team leader could be harmful for the bigger process.

      Where I come from, you do not “embarrass” the leader, by questioning their ideas and decision agendas in front of other people. So that is why some people can keep quiet, coming across as consenting, when in fact their intention was to save a reputation in the room and hope to achieve a change of mind outside of the room. More often than not, for various reasons it is not that easy to change the decision once everyone leaves the room. I have learnt that the hard way and it is something I am sensitive to when we are “sharing our thoughts”.

      My personal favourite of the above is consensus. Yes it takes long, but when people trust each other in the team, it can flow! Without trust, any decision making process is compromised as nobody focuses on the bigger picture of what the team is looking to achieve, but they get stuck on their own story.

      • Hi Thabo,
        I’m so glad you brought in how cultural differences can affect this. In many cultures, it is important to show respect to the leader. It makes it more challenging to figure out how to share differences of opinion, but it is not impossible, and it is especially important when you see your team heading down the wrong path.
        It works best when the leader sets up norms that sharing different opinions is not only acceptable, it’s important.
        I agree with you that generally consensus is the best method, even though it takes longer. This is one of the 5 principles I shared in a recent post “Sometimes you need to go slow at first in order to go faster later.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding another important dimension to the conversation.

    • Hi Jesse

      Being an office manager I usually encounter the authority vote situation. I have found that many times team members lack the confidence to give input to a decision when in actuality their input would more likely than not be very well taken. This post is a very good topic for an office meeting hoping to give staff the insight into being more proactive.

      Thank you for the great information

      • Hi Tina, I agree with your viewpoint and want to encourage you to bring this topic up for discussion with your team. It might be interesting to hear from them why they don’t give input more often. And it’s an opportunity for you to invite and encourage them to do so more often. Best wishes to you as you develop your team.

    • Nice post, Jesse! It’s interesting how in the process of creating a team, it’s a given that time needs to be spent defining function and roles. And yet, very little time is spent on communicating and explaining how decisions should be made, which frankly is the real purpose of teams – making decisions on which ideas/suggestions should be implemented to address the issue for which the team was created.

      Thanks for helping to shed some light on this.

      • Hi Tanveer, You raise an interesting and important point that the reason teams exist is to marshall the collective wisdom to make intelligent decisions that ensure coordinated action toward their shared purpose. Given how important decision making is, it is indeed interesting how little time is devoted to getting clarity on how decisions will be made. AND they pay the price for that lack of clarity. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your wisdom here.

    • Jesse,

      It’s fascinating to watch the dynamics with groups making decisions.

      I’ve noticed that a lot of times, the person who is the most vocal and the most passionate about their idea is the one who will determine the choice the group makes. As you mentioned, the silence from others is often assumed to be consent and that is not always the case.

      I think the problem is that people are often concerned about the repercussions of speaking up. For example, many employees won’t disagree with people who have authority over them in a group setting. Or they will disagree in an extremely polite or indirect way (e.g. by asking a question instead of directly saying they don’t like the idea).

      At times, I think I can tell when somebody disagrees with another person’s idea without coming out and saying it. However, I’ve been in meetings where a person will seem to verbally agree with a person and then say they didn’t like the idea at all afterward! Basically, they were just being polite or repeating back what the other person said.

      I think a key to making good decisions with groups is to have an environment where everybody feels comfortable expressing their views. The process should be about discussing the pros and cons of ideas without worrying about offending other people. When somebody disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they are attacking who you are as a person. However, I definitely think that people should be respectful when they are disagreeing with others.

      • You’ve articulated the issues quite well, Greg. And the effect is that people withhold their good judgment and bad decisions get made. In 1982 Irving Janus wrote “Group Think” a book that examined a number of fiascos due this this type of decision making, including the Bay of Pigs. Setting up the environment that makes it ok to express dissent is essential. One way to do that is to have a group discussion on what norms or operating ground rules are needed. Just the act of having that discussion sets the stage to open up conversations. Generally we tend to be so task focused that we don’t even notice the dynamics that are operating in the background. Sometimes teams magically just “click.” But most of the time, teams need to learn the importance of consciously paying attention to the “how” as much as the “what” in order to become high performing teams.

        Thanks for adding to the conversation, Greg.

    • Thanks, Jesse! I love the idea of having a discussion on the norms/ground rules. This brings to mind the saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” since the discussion could prevent a lot of problems from happening in the first place.

    • Indecisiveness and fuzzy decisions plague many organizations, so conscious decision-making is good.
      Some thoughts on your helpful insights:
      Make sure the team is deciding (by whatever means) that the choices are aligned with larger goals. Help the team become more conscious of their decision so ask clarifying questions about the decisions such as:
      “How do you see this decision being useful to the team?’ ‘How do we see that working for the customer?’ ‘Suppose we make it work, what will be happening (in detail)?’ ‘What’s our contingency in case this decision needs adjusting?’

      • Hi Alan, Thanks for sharing your helpful suggestions and questions for teams to consider. Once they have clarified how they will make the decision, your helpful questions can guide them toward the best decision.

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