Do you hate group decision-making? You’re not alone.
Trying to make a decision, especially in a dysfunctional group, can be extremely unpleasant – unending meetings, circular conversations, bad ideas, and passive aggressive or even openly aggressive conflict.
One of the reasons why decision-making can go so terribly wrong is that many of us were taught unhelpful myths about how to go about it, or were taught nothing at all. In my consulting work, I’ve witnessed one core practice that consistently improves group decision-making, especially when the group is experiencing conflict.
A group’s principles are the underlying criteria and commitments that guide their work. Principles can include our ethical values, organizational goals, or our understanding of fundamental constraints that provide the greater context for our work (such as a principle like, “We will stay within our budget”).
Preferences are our likes and dislikes and can include both long-standing personality-based leanings (such as, “I’ve always prefered one-on-one interactions to large groups,”) or situational mood swings (such as, “I’m so exhausted today, I just want to pick whichever plan will be the least work”).
What’s the difference between principle-based decision-making versus decision-making based on preferences? Arguing from a place of preferences is unproductive and can harm relationships, while arguing based on principles is a more productive way to have a conversation that leads to a decision. I first learned this practice from Anna Westley at The Rowe Center, where I continue to run a summer program for children.
Imagine you’re part of an after-school program team deciding whether to offer an Olympics-style competition activity for kids. Here’s how arguing based on preferences might go: “That doesn’t sound like fun to me. I would hate that! And I would have hated that as a kid.” Principle-based decision-making might sound like this: “One of our principles is to encourage a sense of community in our program. Competitive games erode collaboration.” Even though both statements disagree with the proposal, each framing may result in very different reactions and conversations.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting where preferences took over, you probably have a memory of getting stuck in a destructive gridlock. Why does that happen?
If a person says, “I don’t like the Olympics,” the counterargument is, “How can you not like the Olympics? Are you serious? I love them!” Preferential disagreements can never be argued impersonally, are difficult to resolve, and push the speakers to reject one another as people.
In the example of the after-school program staff raising the principled objection that competition impairs a sense of community, there are ways a group could offer principled counter arguments.
In both of those cases, the structure of the discussion is that the group is a team joining together to make thoughtful, informed decisions. The more diverse the information, skills, and experiences of the group members, the better the decisions will be.
When groups commit to principle-based decision-making, the task of figuring out how to enact group values is the adversary, and the people in the group are partners in that difficult work. The emotional outcome of working with a group that is joined together to live a set of values and goals can be a sense of incredible cohesion, effectiveness, power, and closeness. Can you picture what it would be like to walk out of a meeting feeling that way?
It’s impossible to argue based on principles if you don’t know what they are. Try some of the ideas below to gain clarity:
A benefit of principle-based decision-making is that it helps groups land on decisions that align with their philosophies, as opposed to just their temporary moods, likes, or dislikes. It’s often necessary to make choices that we don’t fully enjoy. Part of what can help us sustain our energy when we’re working on unenjoyable but essential tasks is the knowledge that our efforts are expressing our values and our interconnection with the other people who share our goals. Landing on a decision that we believe in but don’t enjoy doesn’t signal dysfunction – when a group has carefully come to a principled decision, it can be part of being an effective team.
However, what do you do when your group is trying to choose between two principles of equal philosophical value? This is when preferences come in – choose the one that’s more fun!
Group decision-making doesn’t have to be painful. It can be an opportunity for closeness, collaboration, and shared creativity. Try these tips with your group and let us know in the comments section below how it goes!