What to do When Your Team Can’t Make a Decision

Dictator-by-default syndrome is where a team can’t reach a decision and the business leader has to make a choice that usually few in the group like. This has been framed as a leadership failing, a teamwork failing or both. Companies try to combat it with teambuilding, assertiveness training and other methods that miss the problem. It’s not the people, it’s the process.

“Teamwork is so important that it is virtually impossible for you to reach the heights of your capabilities or make the money that you want without becoming very good at it.” -- Bria

Asking the Impossible

It is nearly impossible for a group of 3 or more people to reach a consensus on an issue with 3 or more issues through traditional methods (voting, debate, etc.)

Acknowledging the Problem

To circumvent the dictator-by-default syndrome, CEOs and their teams must first understand the conditions that give rise to it.

The majority of executive teams function like a legislature. Each member represents a certain section of the corporate population. It is difficult for them to separate out functions and work on the problem at hand without their primary job influencing it.

The voting paradox also plays into the problem. With multiple choices and multiple people, you can end up with circular decisions and no real consensus. Even framed as a binary choice, implied choices pop up. For example, buy or not to buy has the implied third option of buying something else.

The use of the business case, which forces decisions into a yes-or-no frame-work, is a tacit admission that groups are not good at discussing and prioritizing multiple options

Managing the Impossible

Once CEOs and their teams understand why they have trouble making decisions, they can adopt some straightforward tactics to minimize potential dysfunction.

Articulate clearly what outcome you are seeking. Executives need clearly stated goal. There should be no assumptions and no guesswork. IF everyone doesn’t understand the problem you are set up for the dictator-by-default scenario. Don’t assume, ask.

Provide a range of options for achieving outcomes. Once the problem is clearly stated, break up the simplistic options. You shouldn’t have 3 or 4 choices, it should be a range. Inviting participants to think of alternatives and other options. As long as the problem is stated correctly, you can have good results.

Test fences and walls. When teams are invited to think about options, they almost immediately focus on what they can’t do – especially at the divisional level, where they may feel hemmed in by corporate policies, real or imagined

Often the entire team not only assumes that a constraint is real but also shies away when the discussion comes anywhere near it. When team members cite a presumed boundary, my colleagues and I encourage them to ask whether it’s a wall, which can’t be moved, or a fence, which can

Surface preferences early. Get a feel for where the team is initially. Non-binding votes are a great way to get a feel for where the team is at decision wise. Narrow down the decision-making field by learning what people are thinking. If no one is even considering an option, take it off the table as you work through the other options.

By the third and final round of the exercise, this weighted voting had helped them narrow their discussion to a handful of businesses and channels, and genuine alignment began to develop among team members.

State each option’s pros and cons.

Make sure all sides of an argument are being discussed. Use a devil’s advocate to fully explore the how and why. The devil’s advocate can bring to light problems you need to discuss further or reasons to abandon a line of thought altogether. If the idea stands up to the devil’s advocate then it will better stand up to scrutiny higher in the corporation.

Devise new options that preserve the best features of existing ones. Despite a team’s best efforts, executives can still find themselves at an impasse. Teams should continue to reframe their options in ways that preserve their original intent, be it a higher return on net assets or greater growth.

Two Essential Ground Rules

If teams are to avoid the dictator-by-default scenario they must adhere to these two rules.

Deliberate confidentially. A secure climate for the conversation is essential to allow team members to float trial balloons and cut deals.

Deliberate over an appropriate time frame. All too often the agendas for strategy off-sites contain items like “China market strategy,” with 45 minutes allotted for the decision.

Leadership and communication exercises have their merits. A team can’t make effective decisions if its members don’t trust one another or if they fail to listen to one another. The problem I see most often, however, is one that simply cannot be fixed with the psychological tools so often touted in management literature. If executives employ the tactics described here, which are designed to fi x the decision-making process, they will have far greater success in achieving real alignment.”

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