Workplace Wisdom

Four Ways Team Decision-Making Can Derail

Conflicting assumptions, incompatible needs, differing work styles, and individual stressors can have a negative impact on group process, particularly when it comes to making decisions.

Some people need to come to a resolution so quickly and so urgently that they’ll just try to get it over with unless a colleague or leader takes pains to emphasize the big picture or the decision’s long-term implications. Others like to spin out the possibilities so far that most decisions seem to pend, permanently.

Keep in mind that whoever sets the ground rules for the discussion of the decision also effectively sets the framework for the decision itself as well as the parameters of its potential outcomes. So if you have a different view of what the decision should be about, you may need to sponsor a discussion that’s a kind of prequel — “deciding what we need to decide.” (See Three Crucial Elements of Team Decision-Making.)

Yes, it can be torturous to go over the same ground again. But if you don’t, you might think that the issue has been put to rest — only to discover later, that other participants believed different things about the decision and have taken conflicting actions based on those discrepant beliefs.

Here are four examples of common decision-making derailments.

#1: Missing Context

If the process for decision-making is muddled — either because there’s no clear leader or the leader isn’t skillful at structuring or sponsoring the process — then the decision can happen at the wrong organizational level or at the wrong depth, with people, say, focusing too much on the trees — or worse yet, the details of tree bark — instead of on the paths out of the forest.

#2: Mismatched Frames of Reference

Junior or inexperienced team members sometimes have access to data that indicates a particular result, but more experienced senior team members may look at the same data and say, “No, no, that’s not how it plays out. It actually will come out like this.”

Whether “this” is a better or a worse result, the juniors are likely to assume that their seniors don’t care about making data-based decisions just “go with their guts” if the seasoned people don’t explain what other data they’re using — statistical, experiential, historical, or subjective.

Several negative circumstances could follow: The junior people might start withholding crucial data that the seniors actually need to inform their experienced gut instincts; or, worse, the juniors might start making gut decisions too — but since their guts aren’t seasoned yet, their decisions may be wrong. Worst of all, the juniors may not trust the seniors — or their decisions — altogether if they believe they’re ignoring the data.

#3: Worn-out Team Members

During periods of growth, change, or disruption, it can be exhausting to manage a comprehensive decision-making process that produces numerous necessary decisions in short order. The team can be under too much pressure to produce.

One real-life example is a forum in which research was brought to bear and serious discussions took place as 42 different ideas were explored, fully vetted, and declared flawed. At the 11th hour, the group went with the 43rd idea. Did they agree to it because it was truly the best choice? No, they agreed because they were tired and the clock was ticking. The 43rd solution was probably no better than the previous 42 ideas, but the group had run out of steam.

#4: Missed Signals

Even when the context has been clear and the decision process has been thoughtful, it can happen that insufficient care is taken to report both the big concepts and the details of what the group said and meant. Although the decision might be the right one, its value can be severely undercut if the context and intent are not fully conveyed to the people who are expected to carry it out. The failure is typically blamed on the faulty implementation, without recognition of the lack of communication that caused it.

Tracking Derailments

There are numerous other forms of decision derailment. If you’ve stood by the tracks as a decision fell apart or been part of a decision-making team or process that resulted in a pile-up, please do let me know.

Onward and upward,

LK

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