Many managers feel they are well-versed in areas of group effort, such as problem-solving, goal-setting, and action planning. Frequently, however, the implementation of such techniques never seem to get beyond the initial stage. Often, this is because managers can not quite seem to understand that brainstorming or group decision-making requires comprehensive utilization of various processes. Managers may unknowingly find themselves perpetuating problems instead of solving them by participating in the following situations (one or more of them will certainly look familiar):
Decision by Lack of Response - The Plop Method: The most common—and perhaps least visible—group decision-making method is that in which someone suggests an idea and, before anyone else has said anything about it, someone else suggests another idea, until the group finds one it will act on. This results in shooting down the original idea before it has really been considered. All the ideas that are bypassed, have, in a sense been rejected by the group because the “rejections” have been simply a common decision not to support the ideas, the proposers feel that their suggestion has “plopped." The floors of most conference rooms are completely littered with plops.
Decision By Authority Rule: Many groups start out with—or quickly set up a power structure that makes it clear that the chairman (or someone else in authority) will make the ultimate decision. The group can generate ideas and hold free discussion, but at any time the chairman can say that, having heard the discussion, he or she has decided upon a given plan. Whether or not this method is effective depends a great deal upon whether the chairman is a sufficiently good listener to have culled the right information on which to make the decision. Furthermore, if the group needs to also implement the decision, then the authority-rule method produces a bare minimum of involvement by the group (basically, they will do it because they have to, not necessarily because they want to). Hence it undermines the potential quality of the implementation of the decision.
Decision By Minority Rule: One of the most often heard complaints of group members is that they feel “railroaded” into some decision. Usually, this feeling results from one, two or three people employing tactics that produce action—and therefore should be considered decisions—but which are taken without the consent of the majority.
A single person can “enforce” a decision, particularly if they are in some kind of chairmanship role, by not giving opposition an opportunity to build up. For example, the manager might consult a few members on even the most seemingly insignificant step and may get either a negative or positive reaction. The others have remained silent. If asked how they concluded there was agreement, chances are that they will say, “Silence means consent, doesn’t it?
Everyone has a chance to voice opposition.” If the group members are interviewed later, it sometimes is discovered that an actual majority was against a given idea, but that each one hesitated to speak up because she thought that all the other silent ones were for it. They too were trapped by “silence means consent.”
Finally, a common form of minority rule is for two or more members to come to a quick and powerful agreement on a course of action, then challenge the group with a quick “Does anyone object?", and, if no one raises their voice in two seconds, to proceed with “Let’s go ahead, then.” Again the trap is the assumption that silence means consent.
Decision By Majority Rule (Voting and/or Polling): More familiar decision-making procedures are often taken for granted as applying to any group situation because they reflect our political system. One simple version is to poll everyone’s opinion following some period of discussion. If the majority of participants feels the same way, it is often assumed that that is the decision. The other method is the more formal one of stating a clear alternative and asking for votes in favor of it, votes against it, and abstentions.
On the surface this method seems completely sound, but surprisingly often it turns out that decisions made by this method are not well implemented, even by the group that made the decision. What is wrong? Typically, it turns out that two kinds of psychological barriers exist.
First, the minority members often feel that there was an insufficient period of discussion for them to really get their point of view across; hence they feel misunderstood and sometimes resentful;
Second, the minority members often feel that the voting has created two camps within the group, and that these camps are now in win-lose competition: The minority feels that their camp lost the first round but that it is just a matter of time until it can regroup, pick up some support, and win the next time a vote comes up.
In other words, voting creates coalitions, and the preoccupation of the losing coalition is not how to implement what the majority wants, but how to win the next battle. If voting is to be used, the group needs to be sure that it has created a climate in which members feel they have had their day in court, and where all members feel obligated to go along with the majority decision.
The Better Way: Because there are time constraints in coming to a group decision and because there is no perfect system, a decision by consensus is one of the most effective methods. Unfortunately, it is one of the most time-consuming techniques for decision-making. It is also quite important to understand that consensus, is not the same thing as unanimity. Rather, it is a state of affairs where communications have been sufficiently open (and the group climate has been sufficiently supportive) to make everyone in the group feel that they have had their fair chance to influence the decision. Someone then tests for the “sense of the meeting,” carefully avoiding formal procedures like voting. If there is a clear alternative to which most members subscribe, and if those who oppose it feel they have had their chance to influence, then a consensus exists. Operationally it would be defined by the fact that those members who would not take the majority alternative nevertheless understand it clearly and are prepared to support it in deference to any others that are probably about as good.
In order to achieve such a condition, time must be allowed by the group for all members to state their opposition and to state it fully enough to get the feeling that others really do understand them. This condition is essential if they are later to free themselves of the preoccupation that they could have gotten their point of view across if only others had understood what they really had in mind. Only by careful listening to the opposition can such feelings be forestalled, thereby allowing effective group decisions reached.
Of course, recognizing the several types of group decision-making is only part of the process. Managers must be specific in their approach to the one that is best in their own situation. What are the actual steps in a decision made by a group?
Other Considerations: Keeping adequate records of all steps completed (especially brainstorming) can allow energy expended to be “recycled". Falling back on thinking that was previously done makes it unnecessary to “plough the same ground twice.”
When entering into problem-solving to remember that it is unlikely that the best solution will be found on the first attempt. Good problem-solving can be viewed as working like a guidance system: The awareness of the problem is an indication of being “off course", requiring a correction in direction. The exact form the correction is to take is what problem-solving is aimed at deciding. But once the correction (the implemented solution) is made, it is possible that, after evaluation, it will prove to be erroneous—perhaps even throwing you even more off course than in the beginning.
If this happens, the task then becomes to immediately compute what new course will be effective. Several course corrections may be necessary before getting back on track to where you want to go. Still, once the desired course is attained, careful monitoring is required to avoid drifting off course again unknowingly. Viewing problem-solving in this realistic manner can save a lot of frustration that comes from expecting it to always produce the right answers.