When groups struggle to decide

One of the most interesting things about working with groups is observing their dynamic through a decision making lens.  At certain points, during a workshop, a group needs to make a decision, revealing much about the nature of their group.

As a meeting leader, you need to be aware of what is happening in your group at that time. Is the decision process going well? Is it stalling? If so, what is happening?

Step 1: Observe

The first step of a meeting leader is to observe the dynamic. What are you noticing? What behaviours are evident? What is going on at the surface? Below the surface?

When groups are struggling to decide, you may see:

  • silence, the group is not speaking
  • limited support for new ideas as they arise, the group doesn’t know what it believes
  • stilted dialogue, the group is uncertain of safety and is feeling cautious
  • an absence of insight, the group can’t decide what something means
  • different perspectives are not acknowledged, the group hasn’t decided to support each other

A struggling group is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may
be a necessary thing. 

Bruce Tuckmans article Developmental Sequence for Small Groups  defined a the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ model that many of us are familiar with. At the heart of this model is an acknowledgement group development follows a cycle and takes time. Groups go through four distinctly different phases characterized by different behaviours and challenges.

That groups struggle is necessary and to some degree unavoidable. Importantly, if even one member of a group should change, you start over. You are back at the forming stage.

Step 2: Self reflection

This is a small but important step as the meeting leader. How are you feeling about what is happening in the room? How important is it that the group resolve their roadblock right away? Do they have time to resolve it?

Take a quick breath to understand how you are reacting to what you are seeing first, before you jump to diagnosis.

Step 3: Diagnosis

Why are the observed behaviours happening?  What do you think is a root cause?  What might some contributing factors? A bit of dispassionate analysis is needed. This is often where a third party facilitator has an advantage as they don’t have a lot of pre-conceived ideas.

  • Is there an overweighting of a single thinking style?
  • Is the group newly formed?
  • Has there been a change in the membership of the group?
  • Is the topic of discussion relatively unfamiliar?
  • Are trust levels within the room low?
  • Are there ‘factions’ within the room?
  • Are there ‘elephants’ wandering freely in the room?
  • Is this a ‘hostage-like’ scenario?

Intervention can be simple.

Step 4:  Intervention

As a meeting leader – there are things you can do to address the dynamics that you see happening. You have to decide on the degree of intervention that is needed. Intervention can be quite simple.

In the case of an overweighting of a single thinking style (which is common when you deal with departmental groups), add diversity. Bring others, into the discussion, who will offer a different perspective which can be beneficial in unblocking a group. Alternatively, plan your meeting activity so as to stimulate an alternate thinking style. A common approach with technical groups who tend to be quite analytic (left brained) is to have them work with images, which stimulate the more holistic, pattern thinking right brain.  (see Too Much Left Brain )

Often, I work with newly assembled groups. As an example, a board of directors has turned over and is quite new, but open to working together. Their limited familiarity causes them to be cautious and reserved. Their group dynamic is as yet, undeveloped. They are forming.

This is the easiest problem to solve. Spend time on activities which will increase familiarity such as personal story telling and small group work or fun exercises. Have the group define its primary purpose. Maintain a supportive environment and encourage articulation of thoughts. In my experience these groups become much more comfortable over the course of a single day. Be aware that a similar process is necessary when new members join an existing group.

New topics are an interesting dilemma for groups. The topic is often the reason for bringing them together, but the topic may be quite different, unfamiliar or uncomfortable and causes the group to act accordingly. In this scenario it is important to give a healthy quantity of time to the topic itself. Increase the amount of time spent the group spends on reviewing facts, reflecting on the topic and exploring meaning before moving to decision. Often groups are pushed towards decision too quickly in these scenarios and find themselves resistant. Time spent exploring the topic will improve decision making.

An untrusting dynamic is more complicated to resolve and will take more time. A good starting point may be to clarify the purpose of the group. Have the group articulate their issues and focus on ideas. Acknowledge and reflect the experiences of the group. What has happened before? Encourage transparency of thinking. What did they mean when they said that? Ask group members to state their reasoning and intent when they speak to reduce the risk of further misunderstandings. Maintain an open and supportive environment. Adoption of this form of dialogue may allow you to get to a decision. Turning this dynamic on a permanent basis is a longer term proposition and a more complicated intervention.

In the case of factions in a room, where the camp is obviously divided, decision making becomes elusive because the factions may be supporting a specific position. In this scenario, it is necessary to define the problem and define the common interest of the group. Focus on establishing options, establish decision criteria and then move towards decision making. A deeply divided group has a host of issues that take time to overcome.  This may be the most complicated intervention and require more than one conversation to get to a result.

When there is an elephant wandering freely in the room, suspend your planned agenda and deal with the elephant. Good decisions can not be made with a large, unresolved issue.

In the case of a room full of ‘hostages’ – people who would rather be anywhere but here, find out what would be a useful outcome to them. If there’s nothing in sight for them, let them leave the room. They do not want to be a part of the process and won’t help you get to a good decision.

Ask the group what it needs. 

Last and perhaps most important, ask the group what it needs to resolve its struggle. Ask  what would be helpful to the group at this point in their struggles. Sometimes groups will ask for more think time, or more discussion time, more facts, more structure, or better decision criteria. When in doubt – ask the group.

It’s important to remember that not all struggle is bad. In fact, struggle is often needed to come to a common understanding or agreement on a topic.

Some of the benefits of a struggle during the decision process include: 

  • increased group cohesion
  • increased commitment to outcome
  • increased likelihood that important topics are coming to the surface
  • areas for additional discussion are exposed

As the leader of a group meeting, your role is to create a healthy process for decision making. The group’s job is to get the decision made.