Mastering Team Decision Making: Part 2 in a 3-Part Series on Effective Teams

September 26, 2014

In Part 2 of this three-part series on effective teams, Project Director Lupe Poblano explores team decision making, specifically, when and how teams should be used for decision making. In Part 1, he explored common definitions for teams and outlined the circumstances that help them function at their highest level.

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” - Winston Churchill

Yes. Making decisions in our own lives, all by ourselves, can be challenging enough. Now put a bunch of different human beings together, each with different perspectives, identities, and life experiences, and expect that group to make decisions. Depending on your personality and experience, this can sound really fun or really terrifying. In this post, we’ll talk about when teams should make decisions, how teams can go about making effective decisions, and examine a common pitfall in team decision making.

When we are making decisions, either as individuals or within a team, we are usually balancing three criteria: quality, speed, and acceptance. Quality refers to whether this is the best decision we can make in a given moment and circumstance; speed is about how quickly a decision is needed; and acceptance speaks to how important it is for the decision to “land” well with the organization and how much buy-in is needed from the team for the decision to be effectively implemented. 

Individual vs. Team Decision Making
To clear up confusion, let’s first talk about when individual decision making is more appropriate than team decision making. If the decision 1) does not require action from most team members (or anyone else in the organization), 2) is simple and does not require the decision-maker to have information from other sources, and 3) needs to be made quickly—then individual decision making is best.

Okay, so with that said, when should we use teams in making decisions? We should use teams when decisions are complex, we need information from different sources, and we want or need people to partner with us in implementing the decision. The advantage of team decision making is that a team “brings more resources to a problem than are available to one person. Group members pool their knowledge through discussion. Their interaction leads to new ideas that no single member would have developed. Also, incorrect solutions are more likely to be identified in a group” (Levi, Daniel, Group Dynamics for Teams, Sage Publications, 2011).

Fortunately there are many approaches to team decision making. They fall on a continuum between leader-based and full participation. There is no one “right” way to make a decision: the decision-making style is influenced by time, resources, complexity, and need for commitment (vs. compliance). For our purposes, the important takeaway is that teams have many options at their disposal for making decisions. Here is a table adapted from Daniel Levi that shows different options. Remember, whichever option the team uses, make sure everyone understands up front what the process will be so that expectations are set and everyone knows what their role is in making decisions.

Approaches to Team Decision Making
Leader Oriented
  • Leader decides;
  • Leader assigns expert to make the decision;
  • Consultative: leader consults with team and then decides.
Group Technique
  • Team uses mathematical techniques (surveys and then an averaging);
  • Team uses structured decision techniques (dot voting, crowd sourcing, or some other ranking to elevate preferred solutions);
  • Democratic: group votes, and majority rules.
Full Participation
  • Team reaches consensus (defined as discussion of an issue until all members have agreed to accept and support the decision).

Getting to a decision, especially when using an approach that requires input from others, can be difficult. It can create conflict. My brilliant colleague Marissa wrote a blog piece about four ways teams can resolve conflict. We’ve probably all been involved in teams where there was conflict. It definitely can threaten the social bonds within a group and potentially harm the quality of the decision as well.

The Pitfalls of Groupthink

So, if conflict can derail a team, then no conflict in the team means that everything will work our perfectly, right?

Wrong. Very wrong. Be afraid of groupthink. Be very afraid.

Now that we’re all sufficiently freaked out, let’s walk through what groupthink is and why it can be harmful—just as harmful as unmanaged and unproductive personality conflict can be. In his book, Group Dynamics for Teams, Levi talks about the pitfalls of groupthink. Simply put, groupthink “occurs when group members’ desire to maintain good relations becomes more important than reaching a good decision.” In essence, groupthink is caused when team members (either intentionally or unintentionally) prioritize harmony and cohesion over reaching the best decision, and it is most challenging for a team when it is attempting to make a decision that requires new information and genuine opinions from all team members to be shared with the group. If group norms are that people do not give feedback to teammates directly or share their dissenting viewpoints, then your team is more likely to have groupthink.

Conflict, when well-managed, encourages and pushes the team to explore new approaches, motivates people to understand issues better, and encourages new ideas. This is important because “when opposing viewpoints are brought into the open and discussed, the team makes better decisions and organizational commitment is enhanced” (Levi, Daniel, Group Dynamics for Teams, Sage Publications, 2011). Groupthink, unfortunately, potentially suppresses all these benefits. 

Countering Groupthink

One example of groupthink I have seen occurs in organizational hiring processes. A hiring committee or department might interview a candidate, and then verbally debrief as a group afterward. If the unofficial team culture is that team members do not state their opinion if it differs from the group’s, then you are very unlikely to get dissenting (or even truly honest) viewpoints on the candidates. Also, if the hiring committee leader has a domineering management or facilitation style, you are also unlikely to hear dissenting and honest viewpoints from the group. The net result of groupthink in this scenario is the hiring manager makes a decision, and doesn’t find out until after the candidate starts the job what people actually thought of the person. Yikes. 

One of the most effective ways I have seen teams approach groupthink within the context of a hiring process is to have each team member privately fill out an evaluation debrief template of the candidate and turn it into the hiring manager. This method allows the hiring manager to find out what each person actually thinks, instead of what each person chooses to share in front of the team. It should be noted, however, that this is only a technical solution to the problem of groupthink. If your team suffers from chronic groupthink, there is most likely an adaptive challenge underneath the surface.

As we’ve seen, team decision making can be challenging, and it isn’t always the most appropriate method. But when the decisions are complex, unique viewpoints are needed, you need to explore different options for success, and you need buy-in from others to move the decision from idea to reality, then we must come together and use the collective decision-making power of teams.

Lupe Poblano, MS, is a Project Director at CompassPoint. You can reach him by email. Follow him on twitter at @LupePoblano. 

Additional resources:

What is Groupthink?  from Psychologists for Social Responsibility (A primer on groupthink and some common ways to deal with it)

Conflict Response Styles: What’s the Point of Avoiding? by Amy Benson (A blog about understanding different response styles that might affect team dynamics)


Recent Posts

Project Director Lupe Poblano challenges readers—white and people of color—to confront white dominant culture within your nonprofit as the best way to move your organization toward equity. Lupe also provides practical, real suggestions on steps you can take to initiate change.

How can an organization build equity in its compensation process through distributed leadership? This piece will share how CompassPoint empowered a peer-led group to provide review and oversight to a compensation process that was designed to build more equity into our system.

As we all find ourselves being pushed, challenged, and transformed by this moment in time, it should be no surprise that dominant culture habits may be creeping back into our work, our teams, and our organizations. 

Submit a comment