Deciding How to Decide

By: Eris Weaver | Date: October 10, 2011 | Categories: Community & Communication

Recently, I spent a weekend camping near the coastal town of  Mendocino with my sea kayaking club. This event is very loosely organized. Each morning, folks wander from campsite to campsite, coffee in hand, trying to organize their daily paddling itinerary. Eventually, cars start departing as groups head out to local launching points, windows down as the discussion continues with those still walking along the campground road. The process is repeated at the launch site: which direction shall we go?

This got me thinking about how groups make decisions together.

When a group trying to make a decision together – without first deciding HOW to decide -what happens? Folks may follow a loud or charismatic or leader; those who express a stronger preference may have more influence on the decision. If differences emerge, the group may split. The entire process may take a great deal of time if there are a variety of opinions and/or a number of strong individuals; or the decision may happen in a flash if many are willing to follow.

Many groups can benefit from taking some time to decide HOW to decide before engaging in further discussion. This might seem unnecessary for something so trivial as deciding where to hike or paddle on vacation; when making important decisions in a business, government, or community setting, it can be extremely important.

If you are a leader engaging others in a decision-making process, you must be crystal clear with them on this issue. Is the group going to use majority vote? Are you trying to achieve group consensus? Are you as leader going to ultimately decide, after considering their input?

One of the biggest mistakes one can make in this regard is to allow a group to believe that they are making the final decision, and then later invoke your institutional authority and  execute a plan contrary to their decision. Your group will never again trust you, and their participation will deteriorate. What is even worse is to ask for their input after you have already decided what to do; you will have wasted their time and lost their trust. Trying to achieve “consensus” regarding a decision that has already been made elsewhere is an abuse of the term.

Telling your direct reports that you will make the final decision may not make them happy, but your honesty and clarity will gain their respect.