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How to Make a Decision When Your Team Doesn't Agree

Don't just go with the majority opinion. Here's why.
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In light of Margaret Thatcher's death, much discussion has ensued about her leadership style. That she could--and did--carry the day cannot disguise the fact that she polarized so many. She carried the majority, so what went wrong?

Randall Peterson, professor of organization behavior at the London Business School, has been researching this topic and come to the conclusion that majority rule, in small groups, simply does not work because it makes for such an unhappy minority.

"They have nothing invested in success and often have something invested in failure," Peterson says. "Particularly for a group under the size of 10 people, majority rule is a bad way of going about business."

What You Can Do Instead

What he recommends instead is a "qualified consensus," in which everyone has to agree that they can tolerate the outcome; they can live with it. If you can't even reach this, he says, then the leader must make the call.

I think Peterson's analysis is practical but I'd add one refinement to his idea of qualified consensus.

If you can't get agreement, it's important to understand why and to ensure that this is rational. So it can be helpful to identify what might signal that the decision is not working out as planned. This isn't just to mollify the discontents; it makes everyone think in some detail about how the decision might be expected to play out. If your decision anticipates lower costs, you want to know--early--if costs are rising. If the decision expects increased sales, when would you expect it, and by how much? These kinds of heuristics can make it clear that the decision is not political.

Schedule Reality Checks

All decisions are taken with inevitable amounts of uncertainty; it isn't realistic to expect otherwise. But you have to make a decision and then move on. That said, scheduled reality checks are critical, not just to ensure that the decision is working but so that those who were over-ruled feel that they still count, and their points were heard.

Margaret Thatcher's rule might have ended quite differently had she been able to think about it with Dr. Peterson's insight.

Last updated: Apr 19, 2013

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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