We are all familiar with the scenario.  A new policy is launched in the organization that “came down from the top”, and there is a bunch of resistance by those who need to carry it out.  Or, a manager announces new best practices for the department, and everyone wonders where they came from; adoption is slow and morale decreases.

Not every decision can be made by the people it impacts, but good managers and leaders offer their people opportunities to share their opinions, make their case and offer improvements to ideas when possible.  Good leaders listen, encourage meaningful debate, ask questions and take the information to heart before making a decision.  When decisions are made on tough topics, not everyone can “win”, but on cohesive teams, everyone can feel heard and valued.

Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has said that people need to “weigh-in to be able to buy in.”  That is absolutely true.  No matter what level employees are at, they want to be heard, have their expertise acknowledged and trust that even when a decision doesn’t go their way, the person making the final decision values input from his/her people.

When I was first doing leadership and team development work, I learned about decision by consensus.  This works great in some situations.  Everyone comes to agreement on a decision, or at least they are okay with it moving forward.  One of the challenges with consensus decision making is often time.  The danger is that once you commit to this model, you have to stick with it until you have consensus or take no action at all.  That can bog down processes, or if the process is abandoned, it can seriously damage trust and commitment on the team.

A quick note about voting to make decisions.  It may work sometimes, and is required in some situations, but on teams, voting can start to derail good decision making.  This is especially true if cliques form, or there are people who are good at building alliances around their positions.  I generally discourage functioning teams from using voting as a decision making tool, unless it is required.

It often works best to clearly identify the decision maker at the beginning of the process.  Many times this is obvious because of a person’s position, like CEO, VP or Team Lead, but it doesn’t have to be.  If someone is an expert on a topic, he/she can be appointed to the decision-maker role, or it can be used as a development opportunity for a person on the team who wants to lead.  The key is that at the end of the process, that person makes the call and the team sticks with it.

Once it’s clear who is making the final decision, people need to engage in a healthy and idea-based discussion.  High-performing teams are not afraid of conflict when it comes to decision-making; they value it, they engage with it, and good leaders even mine for it, bringing the best ideas to the surface from all the team members.  Generally, these discussions happen at meetings, but quality leaders look for other ways for people–especially those who may not feel comfortable speaking up immediately–to contribute ideas as well.  This may include giving people the information ahead of the meeting, so they can prepare, or even allowing comments to be submitted and then shared by other members of the team.

On important decisions, the discussion may need to go on for a long-time, even over multiple meetings.  But, the difference from consensus decision making, is that at some point a decision is going to be made.  The decision maker has heard what he/she needs.  People have had a chance to weigh in, and maybe minds have been changed and everyone will agree.  But often, there will still be disagreement.  That’s okay, because people will know they have been heard, and that the person making the decision has the best information possible.  This knowledge, and the trust that on the next important topic they will be heard again, allows them to buy-in, to commit to the decision and carry it out once it’s been made.

This approach is difficult and requires trust among team members and their leader.  It requires consistent communication and the leader needs to build a track record of listening to everyone, not just a couple of favorites.  It also requires the leader to communicate when a decision has already been made and the members of the team must carry it out without input.  More damaging to trust than offering no opportunity for input, is asking for it while knowing it will have no impact.  I’ve worked with a number of clients who have had this happen and it is tough to recover from.

Now might be an opportunity to reflect of how your team or department makes decisions, and think about structuring your next process so that people can weigh-in before you ask them to buy-in.

Jerritt Johnston is the owner of True North Consultants, based in Northern Minnesota.  True North is an Authorized Partner for The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ powered by Everything DiSC®. If you connect with the approach described in this post, that tool may be right for your team.