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Avoiding the High Cost of Ambiguous Decisions


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 thousands of people. After quickly summarizing the various positions, you declare that you believe the group has decided to move ahead. When you solicit final comments or concerns, not a word is spoken. 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. What is a better approach to facilitating group decisions? Joining me in writing this Communiqué is my friend and colleague Rick Lent, President of Meeting for Results and author of the new book Leading Great Meetings: How to Structure Yours for Success. We’ll use a tool from Rick’s book, Five Cs: Choosing how to decide to offer advice to this meeting leader. Although the concepts can be applied to any kind of meeting, we offer tips for those who lead virtual meetings, where you lose vital visual cues.

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.

  1. 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 how best to employ online tools for asynchronous and synchronous conversations.
  2. Consent: This is more akin to seeking permission, where you need the buy-in of each person before you can move ahead. For example, your team may include a representative from several organizations, such as product engineering, manufacturing, sales, and customer service-all of whom need to agree on important details of the launch plan for a major new product. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Count: This is deciding by counting votes. Make sure to 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.
  5. Consult: In this case, the team leader needs to make it clear that s/he 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, you’re 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 about how you arrived at the decision-making process, the more likely they are to want to fully participate the next time.