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  • Importance of decision making

  • Styles of decision making: Who gets to decide?

  • How do you make decisions?

  • Changing the scale of the process

  • A last word: Deciding not to decide

Consider the following situations:

Your group has been offered a large sum of money to continue doing the work that you do. The only catch is, the money is being offered by a group much more radical than your own. If you accept the money, you will seriously damage some of the relationships you have spent years carefully building -- relationships that are allowing you to get a lot done. Do you accept the donation, and link yourself to the more radical group?

Or how about:

You recently advertised a position as assistant director of your organization. Julie, who has been a volunteer with the organization for longer that you can remember (and is a trusted friend besides), has applied for the spot, and has talked to you about how excited she is about the possibility. Great -- except you have received another resume from a woman who is, objectively, a much better candidate, and who could bring some much needed skills to the group. You know Julie would do a good job, but suspect that the other candidate would be better. What do you do?

Ah, decision making. It's one of the most basic tasks of leadership, and yet it's one of the things that many of us, as leaders, want to avoid. To decide is to limit possibilities; to say "no" to some choices; to reject. And what's more, whenever we make a decision, there are consequences; and if those consequences aren't what we hoped for, then we may be blamed -- either by ourselves, or by someone else.

At the same time, a well-crafted decision helps your organization move in the right direction; a well-thought out decision can be very valuable to your group. In an important decision, the stakes can be very high -- which is one reason, perhaps, the process has held many of us hostage on a sleepless night.

Importance of decision making

What are the implications of the decisions we make? The direct consequences of our decisions may be obvious, but additionally, it's important to remember:

  • Our decisions affect people. Nearly every decision we make will affect different people in one way or another. It's important to be aware of the influence our decisions will have, and understand what the "human cost" will be.
  • The decisions we make demonstrate our values. Our actions testify more powerfully than our words what we believe in. For example, if a senator speaks in favor of "family values" but has a history of well-documented extramarital affairs, we'll be pretty skeptical of his stated values.
  • Our decisions will set an example for those who follow us. As leaders, we must understand that what we say and do will be looked up to by our followers; that our actions will be copied and modified by those who respect us. For example, whether or not you serve alcohol at a fundraiser sends a powerful message to those who attend, and it may be copied by others as they hold fundraisers. In a very real sense, "follow the leader" is a game many people continue to play all their lives.
  • It demonstrates a desire to lead. By making decisions, we prove to our followers that we are willing to take the reins, direct the action, and get things done. We have shown that we are willing to put our necks on the line and accept the consequences of our actions.
  • Not deciding is a decision in itself.

Because decision making is an important part of leadership, as well as being something we can't avoid, it's a good idea to know the best way to go about it. The first step in doing so is to understand what the possibilities are.

Styles of decision making: Who gets to decide?

When there's a decision to be made, who gets to make it? Should decisions be made by a single person, by a committee, or by the entire group? Each of these methods is valid, and each may be appropriate for your group under different circumstances. In general, when determining who will make decisions for your organization, consider the following:

  • The perceived importance of the decision to the group
  • The time available to make the decision
  • The number of other decisions that have to be made
  • The degree to which the decision requires specialized expertise
  • The interest and time others have in making the decision

When the decision is important, when there's plenty of time, when other matters are not pressing, when less specialized expertise is involved, and when others express their interest in making the decision -- these are all situations in which decentralized decision-making or a group decision may be appropriate. But when opposite conditions hold -- in an emergency, for example, or when expert information must be processed, or when no one cares very much -- the decision might be better made by a smaller group, or even just one person.

There are three basic decision-making paradigms your group may follow, each of which has its own variations, and each of which may be appropriate for your organization under different circumstances:

A single person decides

When a single person has responsibility for making a decision, the decision can be made either with or without input from other members of the group. Decisions made without input are most often made by a leader or an expert, or simply by the person most involved in the issue. For example, an administrative assistant who is writing the organization's newsletter may not ask for opinions on what font to use; she'll simply pick one.

Although this choice may sound a little dictatorial, and remind you of that boss you really hated, sometimes, it's the one that makes most sense. Every organization functions because of the thousands of tiny decisions made by members every day. Some are so small, even the person making them barely notices them--how the phone is answered, how a letter is signed, what colors of construction paper to buy for the supply closet. Given all of the decisions that occur, it's simply not realistic to think that we will discuss every decision with every person in the group.

A person deciding with input may ask the entire group for their thoughts; ask a small group (such as the advisory board) for their recommendation; or tap a few individuals with expertise on the issue.

Finally, it's important for leaders to know when it's most appropriate to leave decisions up to others. If a leader doesn't know when to delegate, her time (and potentially, that of many other people) will be taken up by many details that could better be handled by others. For example, the Executive Director may decide what the letters to members of the advisory board should say, but leave such decisions as to who buys the stationery, at what store, etc., to the office manager.

Additionally, if other members of the organization feel they have some power or "say" in the group, they will be more likely to invest their time and energy into what they are doing. A leader who makes all of the decisions is robbing herself of the expertise of her staff, and she is robbing staff of their ability to grow and make meaningful contributions to the organization.

How does a leader avoid the phenomenon of "micromanaging" that can be so harmful? Several things can be helpful:

  • Open communication with others in the organization. There is simply no substitute for talking with people and learning their strengths, weaknesses, and the level of responsibility with which they feel comfortable. Communicating with followers is very important: there is absolutely no substitute for clear, open communication between a leader and his or her followers.
  • Recognize expertise. If a member of your coalition works full time as a graphic artist, you might ask him to design a logo for the group. The intelligent leader knows that sometimes, the best decision he can make is to hand the decision over to someone better equipped than he is. Remember: we're all followers in some things.
  • Make opportunities equal to experience. Start by giving followers a small amount of freedom and power in making decisions, and as they grow and become ready for increased responsibility, give it to them. You didn't begin reading with Shakespeare; you started with alphabet books and Dr. Seuss. Decision making skills take time to develop, too; over time, the intelligent leader gives more and more decision making power to a follower who shows he or she is ready for it. Not only does this allow the follower to build his skills slowly and carefully, it allows him to do so in a manner that doesn't put an overwhelming amount of pressure on him (or too much worry on the leader!)

A group decides by consensus

In a consensus, the entire group will agree upon a certain course of action. There are different variations on this as well. For instance, there is "hard consensus," in which everyone has to overtly agree; that is, every member will say or write, "Yes, I am in agreement that we should do that." We also see "soft" consensus, where everyone may not agree, but at least they don't vocally object. "Soft" consensus is quite common, especially when groups have a lot to do. It says, "Okay, we can all live with this, so that we can move on to the next item."

But even "soft" consensus may be difficult to achieve as groups get larger. Sometimes, it's hard enough to get two people to agree on something, let alone two hundred. And for this reason, many groups move on to the third possibility:

A group decides by voting

When people vote, there are several ways to determine the minimum vote necessary. The minimum vote might be:

  • A plurality -- that is, the greatest number of votes carries the decision, even if that number is less than half of the total votes. Pluralities are used in cases where there are three or more possibilities to choose among.
  • A simple majority -- more than half the votes are cast for the same thing.
  • Two-thirds or more of the vote in favor of a certain choice.

A fourth possibility, worth mentioning briefly, is that a decision can be achieved using more than one of these styles. For example, a group might first want to aim for consensus. If that cannot be achieved, then it might vote -- or it might choose to study the issue some more before even taking a vote.

How do you make decisions?

So, how does the leader go about making decisions? Although each leader will have a distinct style, the following steps are helpful in most circumstances, especially for larger or more important decisions.

Decide who will decide

This choice is one that is usually made by the leader. She might consider the list of characteristics listed in "Who should decide?" above to help her with this initial decision.

See to people's comfort

If the decision will be made by a group of people, it is the job of the group leader to make sure that the level of comfort is high among members of the group. It's difficult for many people to speak openly in a group, especially if they do not know other members well. Remember: the silence of group members is an automatic loss to your organization.

Once you have set the stage, so to speak, you're ready to start looking at the situation in front of you. The decision maker(s) should:

Look at the decision as part of the big picture

It's easy to get caught up in the moment. However, it's important to look at the place the decision has in the "grand scheme" of what you are doing. Quite simply, the decision makers should have a basic understanding of how this decision will affect the issue you are working on, as well as your organization as a whole.

Example: Looking at the big picture

Let's say your group is considering whether or not members of the coalition should give skills training presentations at local schools on ways to reduce violence. You have the resources to give the presentation, and you know it could only mean good press for the group.

So, an easy decision, right? There is, however, a catch -- your group sees itself as a catalyst for change--members have worked very hard for years to get other members of the community motivated, and not do all the work themselves. They have tried to keep the organization from falling into what they see as the "trap" of becoming a service organization. Giving these presentations would definitely put you in the category of a service provider, at least for the present. In the long run, is giving these presentations really best for the organization?

Gather information

Information can come from a wide variety of sources--from the press, from people who are affected by the problem, from people who have a lot of influence in the community, from statistics, and from many other sources. The important thing to remember is that whatever you do, don't skip too quickly over this step. An uninformed (or underinformed) decision is most likely one you will come to regret. Try to find out everything you can about the decision and its consequences, including:

  • The likely outcome
  • Possible outcomes
  • Side effects
  • Possible solutions
  • The opinions of others on the decision and its possible solutions
  • The ideas of others who have gone through similar experiences

Although we do suggest gathering as much information as possible, understand that you probably won't have all of the information you would like when you make a decision. Frankly, there may never be a time when all of the information is in, and waiting too long turns into stalling, and isn't helpful for anyone. So when you have all of the information you deem essential, or that is readily available, you are probably ready to move on to the next step.

Consider all of the possible solutions

Using all of the information you have gathered, make a list of all of the decisions imaginable.

If the decision requires a yes/no or either/or response, this step is less necessary, but even then, it shouldn't be completely overlooked. A decision that appears to be a simple this-or-that choice may actually have other possibilities lurking underneath the surface.

Considering all possible solutions

For example, if the decision is whether Jim or Chris should be elected to the Board, it sounds like there are only two possibilities, right? But actually, those deciding might do any one of at least six different things:

  • Elect Jim
  • Elect Chris
  • Elect Jim and Chris, even if that means changing the traditional number of Board members
  • Elect neither Jim nor Chris
  • Put off the decision
  • Decide that Jim and Chris should share a seat

And so on.

The lesson here? When weighing your options, don't be shortsighted.

If there are many possibilities, this point is even more important. And if you, the leader, have decided to make this decision on your own, we suggest that you consult with others at this point, to see what other suggestions they may have. You might even consider a brainstorming session where several of you come together and try to think up as many possibilities as you can.

Evaluate the possibilities

When you have prepared your list of possible choices, you should sit down and evaluate which ones make most sense for your organization at this time. Questions the decision maker should ask include:

  • How much time and effort will each of these options take?
  • What can we afford to do, financially?
  • What can we afford to do, politically?
  • What options do we absolutely NOT want to pursue?
  • What information are we still missing that could change our decision?
  • What are the likely reactions of other members of our group?
  • What are the likely reactions of people outside of our group?
  • What looks like the best option for our group at this time?

It's a good idea to write down your answers to these questions; sometimes, a decision is easier when you have all of your thoughts organized in front of you in black and white.

Decide

After the information is in and you've evaluated the possibilities, it's finally time to decide. If you have followed the steps outlined in this chapter closely, the decision should be fairly clear -- even if it's not always easy, and even if regrets remain. Let's face it, choices rarely are easy in any aspect of our lives; unfortunately, our work for our communities is no different.

Follow through on the decision

Finally, it is the responsibility of those deciding to make sure the decision is carried out, and all your hard work is not lost.

Changing the scale of the process

The decision making process, as outlined above, is focused mainly on larger, more difficult decisions, with consequences that lay more heavily on leaders and have a large effect on the organization as a whole. But the process can be used on a smaller scale as well, using the parts that are most necessary in a more casual day-to-day manner.

Using the decision-making process for a smaller project

Tom, the head of a student leadership project, wants to make T-shirts for the participants, but is unsure of what the design should be. Let's look at how the steps of this process might be useful to him:

  • Decide who will decide -- Tom has decided that, as head of the project, he is the best person to decide. However, he's not a fantastic artist, so he knows he will need to get input from others, such as a graphic designer and possibly some of the students.
  • See to people's comfort -- Since Tom will decide alone, this step is less necessary.
  • Look at the decision as part of the big picture -- The T-shirts will give some publicity to the group, so it's important that any message they carry is in keeping with the group. They are also a "thank you" to the students, so it's important that the shirt is one they will like.
  • Gather information -- Tom can talk to the students about what they like and dislike in T-shirts ("I'm sick to death of white T-shirts"); find out if other members of his organization have suggestions as to what to do and how to do it; find out how much money the organization has for shirts; and identify someone who might be willing to design the shirts at a reduced cost.
  • Consider all of the possible solutions -- Tom can work with a friend with artistic talent to design several possibilities.
  • Evaluate the possibilities -- Taking into account financial considerations and what people like (he might ask several of the students), he can determine which design makes most sense for the student leaders' T-shirts.
  • Decide -- At this point, Tom's decision should be clear.
  • Follow through on the decision -- The choice has been made, but Tom still has to work with the T-shirt shop to design the shirts, pay them, get the shirts, and distribute them to the students.

A last word: Deciding not to decide

Through this section, we have discussed the importance of a good decision. However, there are times when you may want to put off a decision, or avoid it entirely. Why is that?

Well, when faced with a difficult choice, you don't want to be so "decisive" that you decide too soon, and close off input and discussion too early. This can be seen as being more "impulsive" than decisive, and can have negative consequences for your group. You could decide before you have all of the important information, for example; or you might decide before everyone has had a chance to fully explain their views or come to terms with a decision they disagree with.

So sometimes, a conscious decision "not to decide" can be the way to go. After careful deliberation, the decision maker(s) involved might decide it's better to wait until there is more information; or until members have had a chance to "cool off" if an intense debate has been waged on the topic.

In Summary

Making decisions, and supervising those who make decisions beneath you, are two basic tasks of leadership. By systematizing the way you make decisions, you can ensure that each decision will be the best one possible. Members of your organization will appreciate a systematic, fair way of making decisions, and your organization will benefit more thoroughly from their expertise.

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy

Print Resources

Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press.