How to Prevent ‘Unfair’ Decisions from Tearing Teams Apart

Nearly everyone in town breathed a sigh of relief when our selectmen recently voted to cut off conversations with the big gaming company that had its eye on building a casino here. Those of us who had helped to create a Facebook page and online petition to mobilize the opposition felt especially pleased with the outcome.

And yet, although everyone seemed to agree with the selectmen’s decision, some residents felt the process for gathering input was unfair. Despite the fact that everyone in town had the same opportunity to voice support or opposition, some felt the town “allowed this social media thing to go too far.” What should have been a unifying victory turned out to have an unexpectedly divisive effect.

In the midst of collaborating on a new workshop series to help virtual teams make better decisions, my colleague Sharon Marie May and I had a ‘eureka!’ moment. Regardless of how rigorous the analysis or relevant the data, if people perceive that a decision was made unfairly, they won’t buy into it. This is especially true for virtual teams, who often must make decisions based on partial information and have few opportunities to gather the needed data, validate assumptions or correct misperceptions.

In this edition, Sharon and I outline some important questions that team leaders and project managers need to answer so that their virtual teams can make fair, judicious and timely decisions that inspire commitment that lead to action.

  • Why do we need to make a decision at all? With virtual teams, it’s especially important to anticipate any likely questions about the impending decision at the outset, and answer them in writing and through a team discussion. When teams have few real-time opportunities to connect, misunderstandings are much harder to detect and fix. Among the questions your team might have: What’s the catalyst for this decision? What/who’s driving it? What’s the scope? What happens if we do nothing? Is this a burning need, or a nice to have? The more people understand the rationale, the more likely they’ll want to participate.
  • How does will this decision-making process really work? Make the process transparent to all, answering questions such as: How will options be generated? What information is needed to flesh out all options? What are the implications of each? What criteria will we use to make the decision, and who says? Will we take a vote, and if so, will it be a simple majority or must it be unanimous? Do we need to achieve consensus, and if so, how? Is the decision irrevocable, or is it subject to approval? Articulate the decision-making process clearly, and test periodically to make sure that people perceive it as fair, and if not, why. Make revisions as needed, and explain your reasoning.
  • What’s the real problem we’re trying to solve? Frame the decision to address the real situation. For example, is it really about whether to develop new accounting software in-house or to buy it off the shelf, or is the decision more about how best to streamline your overall accounting process? If your scope is too narrow, you may be making a decision that fails to solve the real issue. Take the time to get the scope just right and validate with others, especially if the decision has significant ramifications.
  • Who’s involved in making the decision? If this is not a true democracy, say so. Nothing destroys trust more swiftly than making grandiose promises that “everyone is empowered” when in fact just a few people end up deciding. Let people know who will be making the decision, who will provide input, who has influence, and who may need to approve the decision later. If some viewpoints are accorded more weight than others, explain why. Try to restrict your decision-making discussions to no more than eight people. Find ways that others can participate, such as through online discussion boards, phone interviews, or focus groups. Devise a way by which all input can be synthesized and assessed by decision-makers quickly.
  • How and when can people weigh in? When decisions are likely to have a big impact, give people enough time to review the data, ponder the implications, and offer their perspectives. If they need to sift through a lot of data or solicit input from their individual groups, give them at least a week or so. (More time is okay too, as long as you’re prepared to send a few reminders along the way!) Make it easy for people to contribute ideas (and to build on others’), such as on a shared portal or a wiki, and give everyone equal access to information they need to think it through.
  • What questions do you need people to answer? Whether people are reviewing alternatives online or in real-time conversations, make your questions provocative to stimulate ideas and solutions. For example, ask people to fully visualize each option by taking an “as if” approach: “Fast-forward two years from now, and imagine that we had chosen Option A, which proved to be wildly successful. What steps did we take to make sure it succeeded? How did we measure success? What tripwires did we successfully avoid?” By helping people envision a successful outcome for each option, they will be less likely to cling tenaciously to their “favorite” option.
  • How will we accommodate cultural, language, and personality differences? Word questions carefully to ensure that everyone has the same understanding. Beware of questions that may be ambiguous or confusing, especially if translated into other languages. Test questions in advance with colleagues who speak other native languages to ensure a more accurate interpretation. People from certain cultures, such as those that value hierarchy or prize harmony, may be more comfortable responding anonymously. In your real-time meetings, allow people to contribute in both written and spoken form. Non-native English speakers, introverts and those who may feel insecure about their opinions will appreciate choosing the most comfortable means of communication. If you know that some decision-makers are less fluent in the shared language than others, build in up to 20-25% of extra time into your discussions, and provide more lead time for online input as well.
  • How do you know where people really stand? Admittedly, there’s only so much we can learn by reviewing peoples’ online responses or hearing them speak in team calls. Maybe you detected an unspoken question or concern on the last call, or perhaps it was a noticeable silence. When the decision is crucial, 1:1 conversations are key, whether via phone, video, or in person. Schedule time to hear their perspectives and to give them a chance to ask questions, surface concerns, and provide feedback privately. If they feel they can’t be candid with their colleagues for some reason, ask for permission to represent their perspectives anonymously, if appropriate. Do whatever you can to avoid being blindsided as you prepare to make your decision.
  • How will the team handle disagreement? Decisions that spark very little disagreement tend not to be very well thought-out. Since virtual teams don’t have the chance to pile into a conference room to settle their differences, they need to find other ways. Avoid the temptation to ignore or minimize differences, as they help bring new perspectives to light. Consider how, when and where to enable constructive disagreement, whether in a team meeting where all decision-makers participate, in smaller groups, in an online forum, or a combination of methods. Allow sufficient time for a productive discussion where all feel heard. (Hint: Your usual 60 minutes may not be enough!) You may need to compartmentalize certain aspects of the decision into separate discussions. Other options include extending your timeframe, changing the scope, scheduling additional meetings, or some combination. The worst option is moving full speed ahead, simply hoping that everyone agrees.
  • What kind of ground rules do we need to make a fair decision? First off, for virtual teams, silence does not mean consensus. (In the absence of visual cues, we really have no idea what silence means.) If people must do certain prework to participate in the decision-making discussion, say so up front. If all opinions are said to be equally valued, find ways to balance participation among all. (Try providing a consistent format for giving feedback and a time limit for each. Using online tools helps, too, such as an electronic flipchart, comments field or polling.) What happens if people join the conversation late? What if we are in deep disagreement five minutes before the end of our call? Guided by a set of ground rules that all agree to live by, you’ll help ensure that people regard the decision-making process as fair, even if they may not be completely sold on the ultimate decision.

The concept of procedural justice, where people perceive a given process as fair, is especially important for a virtual team. That’s because members often feel like they don’t have access to the big picture, and they’re being asked to work with only partial information, which can breed distrust and disenchantment. Team leaders need to create, communicate and uphold a decision-making process that’s seen as scrupulously fair and well-conceived, allowing everyone to participate in making a well-informed decision.


Checklist of questions, designed expressly for Communiqué readers

Guidelines for Navigating Through Conflict -white paper from Guided Insights

Bridging the Distance Series of virtual workshops, including our Virtual Leadership Series

Pick up or download the terrific new book by the Heath Brothers that inspired this month’s topic: Decisive

Making Decisions That Stick, a white paper from Guided Insights

To Speed Decision-Making, Get Rid of the Noise – past Communiqué

For more decision research, both basic and applied, check out Decision Research


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