Decide How to Decide

Decide How to Decide

Often in my Crucial Conversations workshops, I get participants asking, “Janice, how can we always be in dialogue? Sometimes, as leaders, for pushing teams to do their best we have to make hard decisions or take autocratic decisions. It’s not possible to always hold ‘Dialogue’ in high-stakes situations, and especially when there are opposing opinions!” Or “It’s not possible to stop to have dialogue for every situation. Sometimes you just have to take a call!” I’d like to talk about these very genuine concerns in today’s post.

With both concerns, the problem is not Dialogue – the problem is understanding what Dialogue is NOT. When we communicate, even in a conversation, we’re not necessarily in dialogue with each other. We define dialogue as a healthy two-way exchange of communication. But more importantly, the goal of dialogue in Crucial Conversations is to work towards creating and expanding your Pool of Shared Meaning.

This Pool of Meaning needn’t be required to be created only at the moment nor created every time over. When you build a strong and meaningful dialogue into your relationships it builds up to lay the foundation of what is key to creating mutuality. This dialogue happens over time, with each opportunity. However, dialogue in low-stakes, low-risk conversations will do nothing towards building that much-needed trust. What matters is do people engage in true dialogue when it seems like the last preference – this is what builds stronger interpersonal relationships, teams, and organizations. So here are a few things you can do to ensure you are in Dialogue in those tough times –

Practice Consensus

No, you don’t need to take a consensus decision all the time to be in dialogue. Dialogue is NOT decision-making. Don’t believe or let others convince you that dialogue is decision-making. Dialogue is a process for getting all relevant meaning into the shared pool. That process should include discussing what we’re going to do with all the input and how we’re doing to decide. Having a consensus on this is a must and an important part of the dialogue.

Let’s take an example: You get a new team and spend the first few days getting to know each other, understanding each other’s roles and responsibilities, and expectations. All that’s pretty clear. Then suddenly there’s an Adhoc requirement and someone needs to take action. To save time (and because for you it’s Adhoc) you go to one team member and ask them to work on it. It’s done; everyone’s happy. But it’s now a watercooler discussion that you have a favorite on the team. You gradually try giving everyone different opportunities, but others seem to feel like it’s ‘extra work’ and not part of their job description and now you just hate deciding on such kinds of requests.

Let’s look at another example: Parents typically make most of the decisions for little children and as they grow older, at least most parents realize the need to give more responsibility to their children leave decisions to them. But there may still be a few decisions that parents will not leave entirely on their children. It is these areas that tend to bring rebellion and arguments. No one seems to worry about the areas where they have freedom.

Where is the problem in both cases? To understand both situations, let’s clarify a thing or two about expectations. We all have expectations that may or may not be justified. But when we don’t talk about them or discuss honestly what these expectations are, it causes people to turn away from rather than get into dialogue.

To avoid violated expectations, separate dialogue from decision-making. Make it clear how decisions will be made in different situations – who will be involved and why.

When the line of authority is clear, the decision-making style is more or less accepted. For example, Managers and parents decide how to decide. However, in a more distributed ownership set-up or when the line of authority isn’t clear deciding how to decide can be quite difficult and can in fact be a Crucial Conversation in itself!

The Four Methods of Decision Making

When deciding how to decide, consider the four common ways of making a decision: command, consult, vote and consensus. These four represent increasing degrees of involvement, but neither is better than another. Different circumstances make the decision-making efficiency of each of these appropriate or not.

But the key is getting a consensus on which method everyone expects to be used. If everyone believes a command is merited, they won’t have a problem with how the decision was made, even though they may not entirely agree with the decision itself. On the contrary, if everyone expected to be consulted before the decision, chances are even the best decision would still feel like a violation if commands were executed.

The Solution?

Ensure that everyone that matters are aware of and in agreement with the decision-making method that’s best for a situation. For every new or unprecedented decision, spend a short while in dialogue arriving at that consensus. And finally, ensure you stay in dialogue but constantly ensuring that expectations haven’t changed or been violated along the way so that any trust issues can be addressed before it becomes a hurdle.

Four important questions to consider when choosing among the four methods of decision making:

1- Who cares? Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in the decision along with those who will be affected. These are your candidates for involvement. Don’t involve people who don’t care.

2- Who knows? Identify who has the expertise you need to make the best decision. encourage these people to take part. Try not to involve people who contribute no new information.

3- Who must agree? Think of those whose cooperation you might need in the form of authority or influence in any decisions you might make. It's better to involve these people than to surprise them and then suffer their open resistance.

4- How many people is it worth involving? Your goal should be to involve the fewest number of people while still considering the quality of the decision along with the support that people will give it. Ask: “Do we have enough people to make a good choice? Will others have to be involved to gain their commitment?”


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