Avoiding the High Cost of Ambiguous Decisions
by Wild Apricot, Dr. Richard Lent & Nancy Settle-Murphy
Imagine this: You are leading your weekly team meeting, and you have just five minutes left to galvanize people around a critical decision that will affect many people. After quickly summarizing the discussion, you say that you think all are agreed and check if there are any objections. Hearing none, you close the meeting, feeling relief that the decision has finally been made.
You have a nagging feeling that not everyone is on board. You seek out a trusted team member, who confesses that many team members are skeptical about the wisdom of this decision. You remind her that you gave people a chance to voice concerns, and she sighs audibly, saying that everyone assumed that your decision had been made, and that you seemed “really anxious” to bring the discussion to a close.
Truly bad decisions are made every day, often because the decision-making process is murky, and needed conversations are rushed. Is there a better approach to facilitating group decisions? To answer that, we’ll use a tool from Rick’s book, Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success, called Five Cs: Choosing how to decide. Although the concepts can be applied to any kind of meeting, we offer tips for those who lead virtual meetings where vital visual cues are missing.
Better group decisions begin by clarifying your intent for the group’s involvement. Five Cs is a simple reminder that there are five distinct ways to reach a decision with a group. Some work better in certain situations than others. What’s critical is that you be explicit about the approach you plan to use for decision making, and why, and set realistic expectations about peoples’ roles in advance.
- Consensus. True consensus decisions are those for which everyone has clearly indicated his or her support. This does not always mean that everyone has agreed to all aspects of the proposed decision. Areas that fail to gain everyone’s support can be set aside as “not yet agreed” while action begins on the areas where there is consensus. In a virtual world where discussions tend to be truncated, consider when to spend time doing this online and when to conduct a separate poll or discussion outside of the meeting.
- Consent. This is more akin to seeking permission (if not enthusiastic support), where you need the buy-in of each person before you can move ahead. For example, your meeting may include representatives from several functions, such as marketing, human resources, and client service, all of whom need to agree on important details of the launch plan for a major new service. If even one representative withholds consent, the launch may not be able to go on as planned. Clarify exactly what people are actually consenting to, and make sure everyone is aware of the implications of consent, or lack thereof. Ask those who withhold consent what it would take to agree.
- Compromise. A compromise is a negotiation. The leader should have a good idea of participants’ perspectives in advance, either through interviews, online conversations, or some other way. During the meeting, the leader openly acknowledges areas where certain compromises may be necessary to gain agreement and asks participants to brainstorm possible compromises, either through verbal discussion or by using an online conference area. If further discussion is needed after this meeting, ask for volunteers to develop options for consideration by the full team at the earliest possible date.
- Count. This is deciding simply by counting votes. It’s a very common, if somewhat weak, way of determining support. Allocate time for a reasonable discussion beforehand, which can take place in advance, perhaps in an online conference area, or in a previous meeting. The voting itself can be done offline in advance (anonymously or not), with the ensuing discussion taking place during the real-time meeting. Indicate whether the vote must be unanimous or whether majority rules. If you take a vote during the meeting, plan the sequence carefully, especially if some participants are likely to have an undue influence on the votes of others. In that case, having people type in responses can help level the playing field.
- Consult. In this case, the team leader needs to make it clear that he/she is simply soliciting input from participants, explaining how the decision will be made, and by whom. In the virtual world, a meeting leader can seek input from a wide array of people by using online conferencing tools. If participants can see and build on others’ ideas, the leader is likely to elicit richer input. Make sure that everyone who provides input is privy to the decision as soon as it can be communicated.
How can you use the Five Cs to make more effective group decisions? Think about an upcoming meeting and decide which process might work best. Let people know in advance how, exactly, they will participate—before, during, and after the meeting. Be explicit about what the decision entails and the implications from multiple perspectives. Create a level playing field by making sure that everyone is equally informed about the topic in advance. Once the decision is made, communicate it to everyone, along with the rationale. The more people understand how you arrived at the decision, the more likely they are to want to fully participate the next time.
Dr. Richard Lent received his Ph.D. from Syracuse University in Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation and is the author of Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success.
Nancy Settle-Murphy is the author of Leading Effective Virtual Teams and a renowned expert in the fields of virtual collaboration, global teams, and planning and running engaging virtual meetings.
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