Soft Skills

Dare To Decide: The Trials and Tribulations of Decision Making

“I’m right; you are wrong!”

“I’ll bet you money that I’m right!”

“Why is management doing that? Are they crazy?”

How many times have you heard the following phrases or even said them yourself? Simply understanding the rationale behind the decision-making process can help you identify the importance of the issue, issues behind the “real” issue, and what really needs to happen to get things done.

“I’m right; you are wrong!”

We are an individualistic culture. In business situations, we have learned to value competition. It is not enough to win; we want to win badly! This competitive force can lead us to view decision making as another opportunity to win and be right. However, the ultimate goal should be to come to a quality decision that meets the long-term needs of the organization.

“I’ll just do it myself!”

Sometimes group decision making seems like a pain, right? Quite honestly, it is more time-consuming, harder to keep the focus on the goal, and just plain exhausting. So why do it? Communication can serve as a catalyst for change, which leads to action and decisions being made.

In general, research has proved that groups make better decisions than individuals. For example, do you remember the first episode of the television show Survivor? In that first episode, one of the self-prescribed leaders of the tribe started building the shelter. He worked and worked and worked, without listening to anyone else, just shouting orders and then getting upset when he did not get the support that he felt he should have. Guess what happened to that shelter? That evening the tide came in and the shelter was washed away. Now, don’t you think that if eight people got together to discuss how to build an appropriate shelter, that at least one person would have noticed the line of the tide? Having more individuals involved in the decision-making process gives you a sense of checks and balances. You are able to consider the decision, utilizing diverse perspectives. This opens the door for creativity and innovation.

Two items to watch out for are “group think” and “risky shift.” Have you ever been a part of a group in which you just brag about how great your group gets along? Everything just works like clockwork and decisions just seem to fall into place. Stop for a minute and think about that. In that case, what is the benefit of even being in a group? If everyone thinks alike, what exactly are you accomplishing?

Risky shift is the idea that we tend to make riskier decisions when we are a part of a group. There is a certain level of comfort when “everyone else is doing it.” Think of the recent major corporate financial scandals. Did those occur with one person? No, those folks started to feel safety and security in the network of individuals involved.

Research has shown that people experience greater motivation to behave well in a group when other people are watching. Also, decision making will include more perspectives. In my freshman speech class, I ask students to brainstorm a list of topics for an informative speech. Most of the students list 5–10 topic ideas. Then, I ask them to get in a group and come up with ideas together. This is simple math. If you put five people together that already have at least five ideas on their own, that result is multiplied to have 25 topics. This gives you a lot more to work with.

“Why is management doing that? Are they crazy?”

Here is an interesting news flash: Information is power. The folks who are making the high-level decisions also have high access to information. The higher up the organizational chart, the broader the base of information they should be able to pull. Most of us work in one division or specific area. We may find it hard to understand that decision in the realm of our little island, but we need to realize that the folks at the top have the whole world in their view. It is a sad statement that many of us do not trust management. But think of how much time we waste throwing out opinions about management and believing they don’t understand us. Perhaps a better route would be to focus on communicating our needs and goals upward. In return, ask for feedback. Go to your direct boss and say, “I’m having a little trouble understanding this. What is going to be the effect on our overall business?” Be sure you don’t ask in a confrontational manner, and remember that there probably is a method behind the madness.

“So what is the right way to make a decision?”

There are several different systematic approaches to decision making, quite similar to the concept of problem solving. Decision making comes at the conclusion of effective problem solving. If a shared goal was not determined, the decision-making process will be compromised.

Keep it objective. Always focus on the issue, not the person. And realize that with diverse perspectives, you also have diverse backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, and values. In an upper-level course on teamwork that I teach, I do an exercise called “Lifeboat Dilemma.” This exercise points out how easy it is to get emotionally vested in a project. After lecturing on the proper problem-solving techniques and actually listing out a step-by-step process of decision making, I distribute the following problem to solve:

You have a ship that is sinking with 12 people on it. Only 5 people can escape to the lifeboat. As a group, decide who gets saved.

Groups are provided with short descriptions of each of the individuals. Instead of going through a standard approach, everyone starts jumping in and arguing for the people that they want to save. What they are arguing about is value statements, something that they probably never will agree on. Instead, they should have determined the criteria for the decision, and then applied that decision to the problem.

So what are the techniques to use? The nominal group technique, originally developed in 1968, may be outdated for most organizations today that emphasize interaction among employees. However, with decisions that are uncomfortable, or when political agendas exist, this may help to improve the individual’s comfort level. For this style, individuals submit their ideas in writing anonymously. The group leader pulls all of the ideas together, and each item is covered by discussing the pros and cons of each idea. The decision is then made by secret ballot. Ideas are separated from the individuals, thereby removing personal bias, literally forcing decision makers to focus on the issue and not the individuals. The advantage of this technique is obvious: Everyone gets an equal part in the process and can offer an honest opinion without fear of retribution. The focus is on the problem and solution, not individual politics. However, this often goes against the normal energy that creative problem solving can provide. The formal structure may inhibit new and innovative ideas. Also, some individuals may struggle with selling their idea on paper, rather than communicating their idea with the group in person. Most corporations today use strategic planning for decisionmaking purposes. This involves the coordination of communication inputs and outputs, using a competent facilitator, following a structured agenda, and following a set methodology. Management buy-in is also very important.

There are five different approaches to making a decision.

Consensus: This requires that every person is on board and in complete agreement with the decision. Obviously, this is going to be a long process. What if I asked your team what everyone would like for dinner and all 25 people in your team had to agree on that one entree? You would have to consider the vegetarians, the carb-controlled diets, special dietary restrictions, and religious beliefs. It takes a long time. The benefit of this style is that once a decision is made, it is easy to ensure that everyone is behind the decision.

Majority Vote: A vote is taken, and whichever side has the most votes wins. This works great for situations in which a decision needs to be made quickly; however, what happens when the vote is 51% to 49%? That means that almost half of your group is not behind the decision.

Minority Decision: This is very common in business situations, but also tends to cause the most dissent. Executive committees or task forces are brought together to make the decisions for the greater whole. These folks usually have the most experience and information, yet the adoption of the decision will not work unless the greater whole has confidence in the decision makers.

Expert Opinion: The person with the most experience makes the decision. Obviously, there are problems with this. Can this person be subjective? Is his/her base of knowledge limited in broad scope? Can he/she be trusted to make this decision without focusing on his/her personal gain in the decision? And how do you determine who has the most experience anyway?

Authority Rule: The boss makes the decision. Depending on the boss, he/she can choose to consider the opinions of group members, but in the end, what he/she says goes. This leads to quick decision making, but can leave the group in dissent.

So, which one do I use? You need to evaluate the decision that is being made, its level of importance, and the time available to make the decision.

“I want everyone to do it my way!”

Life is sales. You may find out that you have to sell the decision, just as if you are selling a product. A decision will not do any good if you are the only one supporting it. So be honest. How can you best sell this decision? Keep the focus off yourself and consider the folks you need to agree with you. What is important to them, and how can you apply the importance of this decision to what they value? Make no mistake; decision adoption can come down to a popularity contest.


Bridget H. Mueller is an independent consultant in corporate training and performance improvement and an adjunct faculty member at U. of Houston-Downtown. She has taught at U. of Houston, Houston Baptist U., and Wharton County Junior College. She earned a BA degree in organizational communication with an emphasis in marketing from the U. of Tulsa and an MA degree in communications from the U. of Houston. She has published articles in the Journal of Business Communication and has given presentations to various professional associations, including SPE’s Gulf Coast Section. Her professional background includes positions in sales and marketing in the oil industry, fund raising, and special event management.


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