how to apply discent in decision making

Leaders in any organization show their resolve in many ways – mentoring, setting strategy, and implementing the desired work culture.  One of the more important ways to test a leader is in their understanding of how to apply dissent in decision-making and whether they can effectively facilitate decision-making that includes dissent.

Leadership books abound on strategy, assessment, and evaluation.  But many top executives approach decision-making in a way that leaves out options for dissent or proper evaluation.  Put simply, many leaders get decision-making wrong.

I see this all the time.  It isn’t incompetence. Many business people regard decision-making as a one-time decision.  It’s a choice made at a point in time after  reviewing the options in black and white or after coming out of a meeting.

For example, say your company is thinking of pulling a product with weak sales off the shelves.  Your leader’s course of action will, of course, include analyzing spreadsheets, reading reports, considering them, then sending a yes or no to the rest of the organization with the order to follow through on the decision.

This is a traditional way of making decisions that isn’t wrong.  It could, however, be better.  You don’t want to overlook social and organizational context which ultimately determines  success.

Decision-making is a process

 Decision-making is a process that may take weeks and months to roll out effectively.  It’s often complicated by politics, power plays, and personalities. It’s loaded with debate and discussion and requires accountability and support across all levels of operation upon execution.  While the end goal is the same, not all decision-making processes are equally effective when it comes to identifying and considering the best option out of a wide range of ideas.  

In a Harvard Business Review article,  What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions (David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto), research yielded two broad approaches to decision-making:  Inquiry and Advocacy.

Inquiry is “a very open process designed to generate multiple alternatives, foster the exchange of ideas, and produce a well-tested solution.”  Unfortunately, this approach isn’t a habit initiated by most people.

What happens instead is advocacy.  In an advocacy approach, participants approach decision-making as a competition.  People don’t necessarily compete openly. Instead they are members of well-defined groups with special interests and a stake in the decision. They hold to their preferred solutions based on their own interests.

The result is that people  stick to their guns in the face of disagreement.  They lose objectivity.  The result limits people’s ability to look at opposing arguments because advocates select data favorable. They are know to resist and even withhold conflicting, but relevant information.

I do understand their goal is to make a compelling case — to score wins for their department’s goal.  However, objectivity and understanding the full system with impacts on people is missing.

Sound familiar? Let’s apply this.

Let’s focus on a hypothetical situation involving Bob and Joe who are plant managers. Both want to push their efficiency programs into the decision-making process. Both, however,   are wary of giving full disclosure for fear that doing so will jeopardize their chance of winning their position.

Their discussions become antagonistic because competition in the decision- making process often ends up that way.  The decision-making process t has now become a battle of wills with under-the-table tactics.

What is much more desirable is an inquiry-focused team decision-making process with team leadership facilitation  that takes into consideration a wide variety of options.   Yes, it is human nature to hold onto personal interests.  Managers skilled in high performance team decision making use techniques that neutralize closely held positions and interests. This helps them and their teams to decide on the best course of action. 

Rather than suppressing dissent, an inquiry approach sparks critical thinking.  In a correctly designed process participants offer alternative solutions to be researched and vetted that answer hard questions about the options raised.

The caveat for an inquiry process is how rigorous questioning can get and how to manage group process and behavior so that discussions are civil and produce understanding and objectivity.

How to achieve effective dissent in decision-making 

Rigorous questioning and critical thinking inevitably lead to conflict, which is simply a difference in opinion. Achieved correctly, dissent conflict brings issues into the spotlight.  It allows leaders to make informed choices that are not just based on politics or personalities. When handled poorly,  the decision-making process can derail.

Two types of conflict exist – one that relates to the work at hand (substantive) and one that involves personal friction, rivalries, and clashing personalities (affective).  Both are easy to distinguish. When a team recounts a “tough discussion based on facts,  it’s a substantive conflict.  But when comments about a heated argument or personal attack are thrown around, then its affective.

Unfortunately, these types of conflicts are hard to separate.  The room can be thick with friction and the emotional consequence tend to linger even after the decision has been made.  The reality is such conflict only makes it harder for team members to work together during implementing the decision made.

Can conflict be avoided?  

No.  In fact, I highly suggest that conflict be encouraged. The key here is for managers as facilitators to focus on substantive conflict while keeping affective conflict low.  This enables you to turn conflict and dissent into sources of superior decision-making.  I discuss strategies for the in the upcoming LinkedIn live event webinar, Leading Accountable Team Decision-Making  Join us.

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Copyright, TIGERS Success Series, Inc. by Dianne Crampton

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