To do nothing is in every man’s power.
Up until this point we’ve suggested that getting more meaning into the pool helps with dialogue. It’s the one thing that helps people make savvy decisions that, in turn, lead to smart actions. In order to encourage this free flow of meaning, we’ve shared the skills we’ve been able to learn by watching people who are gifted at dialogue. By now, if you’ve followed some or all of this advice, you’re walking around with full pools. People who walk near you should hear the sloshing.
It’s time we add two final skills. Having more meaning in the pool, even jointly owning it, doesn’t guarantee that we all agree on what we’re going to do with the meaning. For example, when teams or families meet and generate a host of ideas, they often fail to convert the ideas into action for two reasons:
They do a poor job of acting on the decisions they do make.
This can be dangerous. In fact, when people move from adding meaning to the pool to moving to action, it’s a prime time for new challenges to arise. Who is supposed to take the assignment? That can be controversial. How are we supposed to decide in the first place? That can be emotional. Let’s take a look at what it takes to solve each of these problems. First, making decisions.
The two riskiest times in crucial conversations tend to be at the beginning and at the end. The beginning is risky because you have to find a way to create safety or else things go awry. The end is dicey because if you aren’t careful about how you clarify the conclusion and decisions flowing from your Pool of Shared Meaning, you can run into violated expectations later on. This can happen in two ways.
How are decisions going to be made? First, people may not understand how decisions are going to be made. For example, Cara is miffed. Rene just plunked down a brochure for a three-day cruise and announced he had made reservations and even paid the five hundred dollar deposit for an outside suite.
A week ago they had a crucial conversation about vacation plans. Both expressed their views and preferences respectfully and candidly. It wasn’t easy, but at the end they concluded a cruise suited both quite well. And yet Cara is miffed, and Rene is stunned that Cara is anything less than ecstatic.
Cara agreed in principle about a cruise. She didn’t agree with this particular cruise. Rene thought that any cruise would be fine and made a decision on his own. Have fun on the cruise, Rene.
Are we ever going to decide? The second problem with decision making occurs when no decision gets made. Either ideas slip away and dissipate, or people can’t figure out what to do with them. Or maybe everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the decisions. “Hey, we filled the pool. Now you do something with it.” In any case, decisions drag on forever.
Both of these problems are solved if, before making a decision, the people involved decide how to decide. Don’t allow people to assume that dialogue is decision making. Dialogue is a process for getting all relevant meaning into a shared pool. That process, of course, involves everyone. However, simply because everyone is allowed to share their meaning—actually encouraged to share their meaning—doesn’t mean they are then guaranteed to take part in making all the decisions. To avoid violated expectations, separate dialogue from decision making. Make it clear how decisions will be made—who will be involved and why.
When the line of authority is clear. When you’re in a position of authority, you decide which method of decision making you’ll use. Managers and parents, for example, decide how to decide. It’s part of their responsibility as leaders. For instance, VPs don’t ask hourly employees to decide on pricing changes or product lines. That’s the leaders’ job. Parents don’t ask small children to pick their home security device or to set their own curfew. That’s the job of the parent. Of course, both leaders and parents turn more decisions over to their direct reports and children when they warrant the responsibility, but it’s still the authority figure who decides what method of decision making to employ. Deciding what decisions to turn over and when to do it is part of their stewardship.
When the line of authority isn’t clear. When there is no clear line of authority, deciding how to decide can be quite difficult. For instance, consider a conversation we referred to earlier—the one you had with your daughter’s schoolteacher. Should you hold your child back? Whose choice is this anyway? Who decides whose choice it is? Does everyone have a say, then a vote? Is it the school officials’ responsibility, so they choose? Since parents have ultimate responsibility, should they consult with the appropriate experts and then decide? Is there even a clear answer to this tough question?
A case like this is hand-tooled for dialogue. All of the participants need to get their meaning into the pool—including their opinions about who should make the final choice. That’s part of the meaning you need to discuss. If you don’t openly talk about who decides and why, and your opinions vary widely, you’re likely to end up in a heated battle that can only be resolved in court. Handled poorly, that’s exactly where these kind of issues are resolved—The Jones Family vs. Happy Valley School District.
So what’s a person to do? Talk openly about your child’s abilities and interests as well as about how the final choice will be made. Don’t mention lawyers or a lawsuit in your opening comments; this only reduces safety and sets up an adversarial climate. Your goal is to have an open, honest, and healthy discussion about a child, not to exert your influence, make threats, or somehow beat the educators. Stick with the opinions of the experts at hand, and discuss how and why they should be involved. When decision-making authority is unclear, use your best dialogue skills to get meaning into the pool. Jointly decide how to decide.
When you’re deciding how to decide, it helps to have a way of talking about the decision-making options available. There are four common ways of making decisions: command, consult, vote, and consensus. These four options represent increasing degrees of involvement. Increased involvement, of course, brings the benefit of increased commitment along with the curse of decreased decision-making efficiency. Savvy people choose from among these four methods of decision making the one that best suits their particular circumstances.
Let’s start with decisions that are made with no involvement whatsoever. This happens in one of two ways. Either outside forces place demands on us (demands that leave us no wiggle room), or we turn decisions over to others and then follow their lead. We don’t care enough to be involved—let someone else do the work.
In the case of external forces, customers set prices, agencies mandate safety standards, and other governing bodies simply hand us demands. As much as employees like to think their bosses are sitting around making choices, for the most part they’re simply passing on the demands of the circumstances. These are command decisions. With command decisions, it’s not our job to decide what to do. It’s our job to decide how to make it work.
In the case of turning decisions over to others, we decide either that this is such a low-stakes issue that we don’t care enough to take part or that we completely trust the ability of the delegate to make the right decision. More involvement adds nothing. In strong teams and great relationships, many decisions are made by turning the final choice over to someone we trust to make a good decision. We don’t want to take the time ourselves and gladly turn the decision over to others.
Consulting is a process whereby decision makers invite others to influence them before they make their choice. You can consult with experts, a representative population, or even everyone who wants to offer an opinion. Consulting can be an efficient way of gaining ideas and support without bogging down the decision-making process. At least not too much. Wise leaders, parents, and even couples frequently make decisions in this way. They gather ideas, evaluate options, make a choice, and then inform the broader population.
Voting is best suited to situations where efficiency is the highest value—and you’re selecting from a number of good options. Members of the team realize they may not get their first choice, but frankly they don’t want to waste time talking the issue to death. They may discuss options for a while and then call for a vote. When facing several decent options, voting is a great time saver but should never be used when team members don’t agree to support whatever decision is made. In these cases, consensus is required.
This method can be both a great blessing and a frustrating curse. Consensus means you talk until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. This method can produce tremendous unity and high-quality decisions. If misapplied, it can also be a horrible waste of time. It should only be used with (1) high-stakes and complex issues or (2) issues where everyone absolutely must support the final choice.
Now that we know the four methods, let’s explore which method to use at which time—along with some hints about how to avoid common blunders.
When choosing among the four methods of decision making, consider the following questions.
1. Who cares? Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in the decision along with those who will be affected. These are your candidates for involvement. Don’t involve people who don’t care.
2. Who knows? Identify who has the expertise you need to make the best decision. Encourage these people to take part. Try not to involve people who contribute no new information.
3. Who must agree? Think of those whose cooperation you might need in the form of authority or influence in any decisions you might make. It’s better to involve these people than to surprise them and then suffer their open resistance.
4. How many people is it worth involving? Your goal should be to involve the fewest number of people while still considering the quality of the decision along with the support that people will give it. Ask: “Do we have enough people to make a good choice? Will others have to be involved to gain their commitment?”
How about you? Here’s a suggestion for a great exercise for teams or couples, particularly those that are frustrated about decision making. Make a list of some of the important decisions made in the team or relationship. Then discuss how each decision is currently made, and how each should be made—using the four important questions. After discussing each decision, decide how you will make decisions in the future. A crucial conversation about your decision-making practices can resolve many frustrating issues.
Now, let’s look at each of the four methods in turn. What are the common blunders associated with each, and more importantly, how can we avoid them?
The mistake. For years, employees have complained that their bosses are far too bossy. They hand out orders like Halloween candy. They not only tell people what to do, but also restrict them to only one way of doing it. They give directions down to the tiniest detail when it would be better to allow the employee to work out the details of how the job will be done. After all, the employee is not only closest to the job, but is also the expert on how to do it.
Today’s generation of employees (and children, for that matter) expects to be involved in more decisions than their grandparents ever faced. That’s where the empowerment movement came from. Younger people don’t see themselves as a pair of hands seeking direction. They want to think. They want to decide. They’re willing to take on more responsibility.
So as you face a potential “command decision,” consider the following:
Don’t pass out orders like candy. We face enough command decisions (constraints placed on us by outside forces) without making up new ones. As a general rule, if people can make choices, allow them to do so. Don’t tie their hands without reason. With kids, for example, you may establish rules about cleanliness in the common areas of the home, but you may let them choose (within the boundaries of hygiene) how to keep their rooms.
When you face a command decision, ask which elements are flexible. Once a standard has been set by an agency or an order placed by a customer, while you may not be able to decide what to work on or what standards to follow, you can decide how to work. Find out where you do have degrees of freedom and then allow others to choose within these boundaries.
Explain why. When handing down an order, explain the reason behind the demand. Knowing why helps make what a lot easier. For example, if you decide overtime is needed to meet a deadline, it helps to explain why you came to this conclusion.
The most obvious problem with consultation is that people believe that if you involve them in sharing ideas, they get to make the decision. It’s easy to see how this happens since you ask for people’s input, you weigh all the options, and you make a decision. Then two-thirds of those you asked feel violated because you didn’t do what they told you to do.
Dialogue is a great tool for consultation. It enables you to get all meaning into the shared pool. But before people start contributing, be sure they understand that the fact that you are consulting with them does not mean that eventually the decision will be made by consensus.
When should you use consultation? Consult when (1) many people will be affected, (2) you can gather information relatively easily, (3) people care about the decision, and (4) there are many options, some of them controversial.
When these conditions apply, find a way to touch base with a lot of people in different positions, locations, and functions before moving on. Don’t simply call on your friends and buddies. Also, consider the following:
Don’t pretend to consult. If you’ve already made up your mind, don’t go through the charade of involving people, only to do what you wanted to do all along. For example, the boss calls on people and then strikes down ideas that aren’t in line with what he or she has in mind, while giving subtle clues and gentle rewards to those who stumble onto the “right idea.”
Announce what you’re doing. When you are only going to involve a sample of the people who will be affected, let others know who these people are so they can talk to them if they like. This is akin to holding neighborhood political meetings. Not everyone will show up, but people who want to take part can take part.
Report your decision. When others are kind enough to share their opinions (whether you take their advice or not), they deserve to know what you decide and why. Don’t try to keep your decision a secret because you’re afraid you’ll offend people. They’ll soon learn of the decision anyway. Better to hear it from you and not through the grapevine.
Weigh the consequences. Voting by its very nature creates winners and losers. So you have to be careful. You should only take a vote when you know that the losers don’t really care all that much. Otherwise you may be fighting the battle for a long time after the decision has been made. With children, for example, have them carefully consider if they’re okay with losing before they agree to have you take a poll.
Know when to vote. When matters aren’t all that weighty, there are many good choices to select from, and people care about not taking too much time, then take a vote. It’s the kind of thing you do to reduce lengthy lists. Vote to reduce the list of twenty items to five. Then use consensus to select from the five.
Don’t cop out with a vote. When everyone cares a great deal about an issue and people are having trouble coming to a choice, don’t stop and call for a vote. Votes should never replace patient analysis and healthy dialogue. If you find yourself saying, “All right, we’ll never agree so let’s vote,” you’re copping out.
Imagine you’re working with six people, all housed in a tight space. Things are sailing along smoothly until one day when a new employee shows up with a huge boom box—it looks like a storage shed with a handle on top. It has its own set of wheels. Thirty seconds later, the pulsing sounds of a band called Decibel Death fill your area. You’re not happy. You fear your head will explode. How might you handle this?
Or how about this challenge? How do you decide the temperature of the room you share?
Or how about this one? Where does the entire family go on vacation?
Or if you want to take on a real corker—who performs the most distasteful jobs at home and at work?
These are the kinds of decisions where neither consultation nor command tools work very well. Everyone is affected, everyone cares, and there are several options—not equally liked. This kind of crucial conversation calls for consensus. Everyone meets, honestly and openly discusses the choices, comes up with a variety of ideas, and jointly makes a decision that each person agrees to support. As is the case with all crucial conversations, this is not an easy process and is routinely handled poorly. Here are some hints for avoiding common mistakes.
Don’t force consensus onto everything. As Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Consensus decision making is one of today’s widely used hammers. People apply it to situations that don’t deserve the time and attention needed to come to a consensus or that can’t be solved unanimously.
For example, forty people are brought together to decide on the color of the work area. That’s too many people. Use consultation. A team meets to decide if each team member should use a certain type of coffee mug (we’re not making this up). Let people choose their own. A couple asks their son to decide his own punishment. Not always a good idea. Some decisions need to be made by command.
Don’t pretend that everyone gets his or her first choice. Nobody ever said that with consensus everyone gets his or her way. Consensus isn’t about getting your way; it’s about doing what’s best for the family or team. It requires give and take. It demands compromise followed by the resolve to support (in some cases) your second or third choice—because it’s best for the group.
No martyrs please. Healthy teams and families are good at coming to consensus because they’re good at dialogue. They don’t toggle from silence to violence or otherwise play games in order to get their way. Since everyone has a say and says it well, healthy groups don’t end up with the same people constantly giving in and then playing the role of martyr. “Are you enjoying the theme park? Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here on the curb and try to think of what it would have been like to go to Paris.”
Don’t take turns. Decisions should be based on merit, not on who offers up the options. Don’t take turns getting your way. “Well, Leona, my recollection is that you gave in last time, so I guess it’s our turn to roll over on this one.” Make the decision based on which proposal best meets the needs of the group. This doesn’t mean that people don’t take into account personalities or strength of desire (deferring to those who care a great deal when you don’t care all that much, for instance). It simply means that the future of your family or organization shouldn’t come down to the flip of a coin.
Don’t engage in postdecision lobbying. Consensus decisions should be made out in the open and as an entire group. Withholding your reservations and then approaching individuals after the discussion is both inefficient and disloyal. If you have an issue, bring it up in front of the group. Leave unhealthy alliances, dirty deals, and secret discussions to people who are on reality game shows. They can afford to abuse one another, take their winnings, and then go their separate ways. With families and work groups, you stay together long after the ugly behavior and you suffer the long-term consequences.
Don’t say “I told you so.” Nothing is quite so annoying as having someone agree on a choice (his or her second choice, perhaps) and then cry, “I told you so!” when it doesn’t work out. Once you’ve decided on something as a group, support the idea—not even when it fails, but particularly when it fails. There’s no room for fair-weather family members or team-mates. Show character. When an idea doesn’t work out, own the failure together.
There are times when you know you should involve others in a decision, but you absolutely have to make a decision by a certain time. In these cases, consider selecting a fallback decision-making plan.
For example, you could announce: “We have a critical decision to make that affects all of us, and it must be made by ten sharp. I propose that we use consensus to decide. However, if by 9:45 we have not come to consensus, then it will become a consult decision. I will use your input, and I will decide.”
This strategy allows you to try for the optimum decision-making method, but it leaves you a back door without making you look like a despot when time runs out.
Now let’s take a look at the final step. You’ve engaged in healthy dialogue, filled the pool of meaning, decided how you’re going to draw from the pool, and eventually come to some decisions. It’s time to do something. Some of the items may have been completely resolved during the discussion, but many may require a person or team to do something. You’ll have to make assignments.
As you might suspect, when you’re involved with two or more people, there’s a chance that there will be some confusion. To avoid common traps, make sure you consider the following four elements:
How will you follow up?
To quote an English proverb, “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business.” If you don’t make an actual assignment to an actual person, there’s a good chance that nothing will ever come of all the work you’ve gone through to make a decision.
When it’s time to pass out assignments, remember, there is no “we.” “We,” when it comes to assignments, actually means, “not me.” It’s code. Even when individuals are not trying to duck an assignment, the term “we” can lead them to believe that others are taking on the responsibility.
Assign a name to every responsibility. This especially applies at home. If you’re divvying up household chores, be sure you’ve got a specific person to go with each chore. That is, if you assign two or three people to take on a task, appoint one of them the responsible party. Otherwise, any sense of responsibility will be lost in a flurry of finger-pointing later on.
Be sure to spell out the exact deliverables you have in mind. The fuzzier the expectations, the higher the likelihood of disappointment. For example, the eccentric entrepreneur Howard Hughes once assigned a team of engineers to design and build the world’s first steam-powered car. When sharing his dream of a vehicle that could run on heated water, he gave them virtually no direction.
After several years of intense labor the engineers successfully produced the first prototype by running dozens of pipes through the car’s body—thus solving the problem of where to put all the water required to run a steam-powered car. The vehicle was essentially a giant radiator.
When Hughes asked the engineers what would happen if the car got into a wreck, they nervously explained that the passengers would be boiled alive, much like lobsters in a pot. Hughes was so upset in what the crew came up with that he insisted they cut it up into pieces no larger than three inches. That was the end of the project.
Learn from Hughes. When you’re first agreeing on an assignment, clarify up front the exact details of what you want. Couples get into trouble in this area when one of the parties doesn’t want to take the time to think carefully about the “deliverables” and then later on becomes upset because his or her unstated desires weren’t met. Have you ever remodeled a room with a loved one? Then you know what we’re talking about. Better to spend the time up front clarifying exactly what you want rather than waste resources and hurt feelings on the back end.
To help clarify deliverables, use Contrasting. If you’ve seen people misunderstand an assignment in the past, explain the common mistake as an example of what you don’t want. If possible, point to physical examples. Rather than talk in the abstract, bring a prototype or sample. We learned this particular trick when hiring a set designer. The renowned designer talked about what he would deliver, and it sounded great to us. Twenty-five thousand dollars later he delivered something that would never work. We had to start over from scratch. From that day on we’ve learned to point to pictures and talk about what we want and don’t want. The clearer the picture of the deliverable, the less likely you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.
It’s shocking how often people leave this element out of an assignment. Instead of giving a deadline, people simply point to the setting sun of “someday.” With vague or unspoken deadlines, other urgencies come up, and the assignment finds its way to the bottom of the pile, where it is soon forgotten. Assignments without deadlines are far better at producing guilt than stimulating action. Goals without deadlines aren’t goals; they’re merely directions.
Always agree on how often and by what method you’ll follow up on the assignment. It could be a simple email confirming the completion of a project. It might be a full report in a team or family meeting. More often than not, it comes down to progress checks along the way.
It’s actually fairly easy to build follow-up methods into the assignment. For example: “Call me on my cell phone when you finish your homework. Then you can go play with friends. Okay?”
Or perhaps you’ll prefer to rely on milestones: “Let me know when you’ve completed your library research. Then we’ll sit down and look at the next steps.” Milestones, of course, must be linked to a drop-dead date. “Let me know as soon you’ve completed the research component of this project. You’ve got until the last week in November, but if you finish earlier, give me a call.”
Remember, if you want people to feel accountable, you must give them an opportunity to account. Build an expectation for follow-up into every assignment.
Once again, a proverb comes to mind. “One dull pencil is worth six sharp minds.” Don’t leave your hard work to memory. If you’ve gone to the effort to complete a crucial conversation, don’t fritter away all the meaning you created by trusting your memories. Write down the details of conclusions, decisions, and assignments. Remember to record who does what by when. Revisit your notes at key times (usually the next meeting) and review assignments.
As you review what was supposed to be completed, hold people accountable. When someone fails to deliver on a promise, it’s time for dialogue. Discuss the issue by using the STATE skills we covered in Chapter 7. By holding people accountable, not only do you increase their motivation and ability to deliver on promises, but you create a culture of integrity.
Turn your successful crucial conversations into great decisions and united action by avoiding the two traps of violated expectations and inaction.
Command. Decisions are made without involving others.
Consult. Input is gathered from the group and then a subset decides.
Vote. An agreed-upon percentage swings the decision.
Consensus. Everyone comes to an agreement and then supports the final decision.
Determine who does what by when. Make the deliverables crystal clear. Set a follow-up time. Record the commitments and then follow up. Finally, hold people accountable to their promises.