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How to Lead Group Decision Making

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Whenever you gather a group to make a decision, you are going to run into good old-fashioned contrariness: someone will disagree with the group. In fact, researchers have long agreed that the best size for a decision making group is about 5; after the 7th person joins, performance decreases by 10% for each additional person.

If only the ideal were always possible in the real world…but even so, teams regularly outperform individuals in decision making. So how do you get the benefits of group decision making and minimize the drawbacks?

Choose the Right People

Every decision requires both thinkers and implementers; every decision affects both those who asked for a decision and those who will be affected by it; and every decision has an ultimate arbitrator or leader. Most people are capable of fulfilling multiple roles but all of those roles have to be represented on the team for the decision to make sense and carry weight.

The number of risk takers and risk avoiders in the group also affects decision making. Sometimes a group is willing to take more risks because they are a group and responsibility is spread out. Having a balance of attitudes and a risk management philosophy helps to keep risk reasonable.

One of the obstacles to change—and any decision requires some sort of change—is resistance by the people who were excluded from the decision-making process. By including their representatives and their perspective in the group, you are more likely to gain buy-in even from skeptics.

Choose the Right Method

There are many different ways to start the decision-making process, depending on geography, timing, personalities, and resources. For example:

  • Ask members to develop individual solutions. This procedure is most useful when the group is difficult to bring together because of geography, time constraints, or other impediments. The members are all given the same information, using whatever technology makes sense, and then each member researches and proposes a solution. Either the leader decides on the best solution or the group votes on it. This method of group decision making is efficient and brings in a lot of expertise, but it may also frustrate group members, who have limited if any control over the result. One version of this technique is called the Delphi Method.
  • In this technique, the group comes together to throw out ideas, creativity is encouraged, and criticism is placed on hold. It is particularly useful for solving problems that seem intractable. This method of group decision making enables everyone to feel part of the final decision, encourages team building, and can lead to innovative approaches. However, it may also cause resentment if a particular idea is discarded, and its success depends on the willingness of each group member to participate fully. The role of the leader is important in keeping the group enthusiastic and open-minded and ensuring everyone has a chance to speak.
  • Find a consensus. Perhaps more than any of the other techniques, the success of this method depends on the personalities and size of the group because, as pointed out earlier, the larger the decision-making group, the harder it is to find mutual agreement and an efficient decision. However, the tipping theory states when at least 25% of a group agrees with a change, the rest of the group will also agree. By relying on the tipping theory, a persuasive leader may find that consensus can be reached within a larger group.

Other methods of group decision making include splitting the group into “yes” and “no” components and asking each subgroup to present their findings; creating a trial or test case to determine if the solution will work on a larger scale; and creating a decision tree, where the consequences and probable results of the decision are mapped out.

TIP: An effective leader chooses the decision-making method that best suits the group and the problem and never defaults to the same method for every decision.


Communication is important at every stage of group decision making—or indeed, for any decision—even before the group has gathered. Most forms of decision making require rules (such as respectful exchange of ideas), and the group should be informed ahead of time how the final decision will be made: by consensus, vote, leader caveat, or conformance to industry standards, for example. Information about the basis and need for a decision should be available equally to all members of the decision-making group. The group should also know what is expected of them: research, responsibility for implementation, convincing other people to accept the decision, and so on.

The leader is the gathering point for information and discussion. He must either take notes or assign someone to that task; ensure the agreed rules of discussion are followed; keep the discussion focused; and mediate against group-think or allowing anyone to impose a decision before the process is complete. Following the group decision making, every member should receive a summary and update of progress so far, including a clear description of new information and of each member’s future role and obligations.

If any members feel that the discussion should continue, the leader must make the decision as to whether enough information has been gathered and sufficiently discussed. One negative outcome of prolonging discussion is that the group goes over and over the exact same territory until it gains power from sheer repetition; facts outside that territory are ignored or dismissed; and a poor decision results.

Finally, if the decision is made by caveat or if it affects parties outside the group, the leader needs to communicate the reasons for the decision, what to expect as a result, and how to address issues. The lines of communication must stretch in both directions—to and from the decision-making group—if the decision is to have the expected impact. A meeting after the decision is implemented helps to determine what worked and what didn’t from the start of the process through the end.

TIP: An effective leader makes sure that every member of the decision-making group stays invested in the final decision by ensuring frequent and clear communication.

Make the Decision

Consensus and caveat are not the only methods for making a decision. Voting, scoring, convergence (where multiple rounds of feedback lead the group to converge on a decision), and ranking are also effective.

The need for you as the leader to make the ultimate decision often depends on how fast the decision is needed. One individual is generally faster than a group, unless that individual tends to put off decisions. Another factor in taking on a decision by yourself is how willing you are to be accountable for that decision; no one else truly shares the risk or the blame, just as no one else shares the success. You also need to consider whether you have enough information or expertise to make a good decision. Allowing a group to make the final decision ensures shared responsibility and commitment, more through dissection of information and ideas, and more available hands to implement, even if the decision itself takes more time.

The bottom line is this: When it’s time to make the decision, your job as leader is to ensure a decision is made.

Key Takeaways

When leading group decision making, you have several choices as to the composition of the group, the method of discussion, and the method for choosing a final decision. Effective leaders choose methods based on the type of decision and the abilities and constraints (time, geography, expertise) of the group.

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