I’ve attended many meetings that end without being able to reach a decision. I’ve also been in meetings where some decision is achieved, but afterwards there is little support for that decision. I suspect these may be familiar situations for many of us.
One example of how leaders can fail to build effective decisions in meetings was recently described in Steven Rattner’s book, Overhaul.[i] Rattner’s interviews revealed a difficult tradition of meetings at General Motors. One symptom of these difficulties is indicated by what managers referred to as the “GM Nod:”
“A decision would be made. The supervisor in the room would ask, “Does everyone agree on this? Have we made a decision?’ All the GM people would nod. But afterward, e-mails would pour in from the attendees or their subordinates, questioning the decision, its implications, or how it would be carried out. This would prompt a restudy of the issues. Weeks or months would pass until the once final decision eventually came undone.”
GM is not alone in this situation. I have been in various organizations where management meetings could only achieve their own version of the “nod” rather than real alignment around some decision.
There are a number of ways to reach decisions with a group. The problem is that many leaders do not recognize their options. They then fail to explicitly choose and implement an appropriate approach for a given decision. My experience suggests that leaders can hit one or more of three “potholes” as they manage decision-making in their meetings:
1) Failure to Choose. The leader fails to consider the range of options for making decisions (see “Five Ways…” below). Frequently, he/she uses one approach for all, such as voting or consensus, but the usual way of deciding is unlikely to fit all group decisions.
2) Failure to Communicate the Choice. The leader may also fail to communicate a clear expectation for how they want to reach a decision. If the plan for arriving at a decision is not made explicit, then meeting participants may operate from their unstated assumptions about the way decisions are usually made. For example, in many organizations the local culture of decision-making may be one of (presumed) consensus. That is, the leader assumes that participants are willing to “speak their mind” and will do so if they have a concern with some proposal. Silence means agreement. Participants may have their own reasons for not speaking out and just follow the leader’s direction. The nature of any different perspectives and extent of true consensus is never actively explored. As a result, the leader can feel he/she has the group’s support while participants may feel that their views, and therefore commitment, was never really considered. This is a situation that can produce the “GM Nod.”
3) Failure to Act Consistently with the Choice. Engaging everyone in the discussion means it is important to be clear, up front, about how decisions will be reached, and then stick to the plan, unless confronted by some obstacle. Some leaders, under pressure and almost without thinking about it, send a conflicting message about their intent. A typical example of this confusion is when a leader acts to close off discussion by asking: “Does anyone have an objection?” In this case the leader may be hoping for consensus or that a majority of the people support the decision. But the message “sent” to participants is much more likely to be that the final decision remains with the leader. (This too can lead to more of the “GM Nod.”)
Five Ways to Reach a Decision: the Five “Cs”
To avoid meetings that fail to reach a decision, or only achieve a “nod” but not support, I recommend that leaders choose from five basic ways of decision making with groups. For ease in remembering the five approaches, I refer to them as the five “Cs”: Consensus, Consent, Compromise, Count, and Consult. No one of these approaches covers all situations. Different decisions may require different approaches, even within a single meeting.
In coming posts I will explore how to use each of these approaches to meeting decisions. I will also look at their comparative strengths and weaknesses and suggest how one approach might be more appropriate than another for a particular situation. For more information on this and other structural choices for more effective meetings, see Choices and Tools at www.meetingforresults.com.
[i] With thanks to Joe Durzo for highlighting the relevance of some of Rattner’s examples for my study of meetings.