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?
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