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Group Decisions: Avoiding Disaster

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“Individuals can generate bad ideas, but it takes a committee for a real disaster.” ~ Erik Sherman

Commitment is an important factor in any organizational decision: is the group responsible for seeing the decision through and committed to achieving the expected results? Any group action in relation to a decision is more difficult to implement if some of the group are resentful, holding back, or actively undermining the decision. The real question becomes,  is full agreement and complete commitment necessary and achievable?

The Tipping Point and Game Theory

In a study of social change, researchers found a tipping point in group action: a moment when the amount of people advocating for change was large enough to bring the rest of the group along. That point was 25% of the group. The study leaders state:

“Once social norms become established, they are reinforced by everyone. This is often referred to as the ‘culture’ of a workplace. In these kinds of settings, a committed group of individuals who reaches the tipping point can effectively change the culture of an entire organization.”

The Nash Equilibrium of game theory, by Nobel Prize winner John Nash, Jr., states that the best outcomes are reached when each player considers the optimum outcome by every other player. In a group, this means that no one gets exactly what they want but everyone gets the best possible outcome in relation to everyone else. Or to put it another way, the winning strategy develops when everyone is willing to change strategies.

The Role of Consensus

Neither of the previous theories emphasizes consensus, which is marked by general agreement or shared ideas. Indeed, the theories assert that group agreement (a) develops from previous agreement among just 25% of the group and (b) that the primary motive of agreement is to avoid the biggest loss and achieve the best possible gain.

Realistically, however, large companies run more often by caveat, not consensus. The most powerful leader’s decision is the group’s decision and the group’s role is to follow other people’s decisions, whether they agree or not.

How to Reach Group Decisions

Given the research into how groups reach decisions that everyone can commit to, a leader should aim for the Nash Equilibrium and hope that at least 25% of the group goes along. Avoiding disaster ranks high as another motivator for an organizational leader and group—including the disaster of losing one’s job for disagreeing.

Regardless of theory, the following steps are universally recommended for leading a group to a decision:

  • Explain the problem and the need for a decision. Clear communication is essential to any decision or any actions taken as a result.
  • Allow time for research and informal, even anonymous, presentation of ideas—if the decision has been made elsewhere and is intractable, then the research and ideas can involve implementation, timelines, resources needed, and best next steps.
  • Be inclusive. You need a mix of people, especially the ones most affected by a decision, to reach a wise decision.
  • Be open to and respectful of differing opinions. If you force your ideas through, you are not only liable to mistakes but you are risking the cohesion and effectiveness of the group.
  • Allow everyone to speak. Acknowledge their issues.
  • Narrow the issues. If possible, give people time to narrow their objections to their two or three most important issues. Select similar issues in particular and brainstorm ways to overcome issues important to the team or to make the solution and its risks more equitable—you are trying to bring the group from “impossible” to “possible.”
  • Aim for the best solution for the entire team, not for any one individual, but guard against group think or default consensus, where everyone simply bows to the most forceful thinker.


Key Takeaways

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