Not to decide is to decide

Decades of research tells us that about half of organisational decisions fail to achieve their goals. They either unravel after a meeting has ended or have unintended consequences. Many meetings don’t end in decisions being made. As we all know, waiting to see what happens is often not an effective way to make a decision. Not to decide is to decide. 

Many teams I coach struggle to make effective decisions where everyone is on board. This was brought home to me recently when I co-facilitated a leadership offsite where we began with asking about hopes and fears for the one-day meeting. Many of the team members had travelled hours to be there and everyone wanted to make the most of the in-person time.

Their biggest hope was that they would (1) make decisions together faster, (2) bring up issues and difficult challenges and (3) arrive at concrete decisions that had everyone’s buy-in. Their largest fear was that they would leave the meeting without any decisions being made as this would delay closure on a vital strategic initiative. One person voiced their concern that they would stay stuck in politeness and not feel able to ‘bring up the big stuff.’

I have written elsewhere on the importance of creating a container for dialogue where people feel safe (or, safe enough) to raise tricky topics (my new book, Now We’re Talking, has a whole chapter on container-building.) In this post I focus on how to make more effective decisions in a group setting through quality dialogue. First, we’ll look at what derails decisions from being made. Secondly, we’ll explore the ‘repairs’ that result in groups making active and aligned choices about the right way forward.

Decisions, decisions

A few years ago, I attended the Division of Occupational Psychology conference in Chester, UK and listened attentively to one of the speakers who spoke with great passion about her work. Denise Rousseau, a professor in organisational behaviour at Carnegie Mellon University, shared her research about how leaders can increase the odds of their decision-making success using an evidence-based approach. Understanding biases goes a long way to addressing them.

Many of us will be familiar with individual biases that impair judgement. Confirmation bias (where we seek information that confirms existing beliefs), conservatism bias (the tendency to insufficiently revise our opinion when presented with new evidence) and availability bias (relying on easily available information) all lead to unwise decisions (and who hasn’t made one of those?) These biases are pervasive and persistent in part because it’s difficult for us to see and reduce our own biases. Add in cognitive limits such as information overload and little wonder error creeps into our personal decision-making.

Organisational decisions are somewhat different. They are often more complex and involve even greater uncertainty. They take place in a social setting where participants hold different points of view which need to be navigated. There are often many more stakeholders, both inside and outside the organisation. There might be a bias to pay less attention to some of these stakeholders, especially those who make a decision more complicated.

Organisational decisions can also fall victim to the ‘Cascade effect.’ When team members  build on each other’s ideas, without bringing critical reflection, you get ‘more of the same.’ If there’s a dominant leader, others often fall in line rather than challenge, disagree or bring a wider perspective. If people don’t correct each other’s errors, they amplify them.

In groups where psychological safety is lacking, people silence themselves or change their views to avoid some penalty, whether this is the disapproval of others or perceived career damage. They follow those who spoke first or agree with the ‘hippo’ (highest paid person’s opinion.) When a group fails to take into account critical information that only one or a few people have, judgements are skewed. Furthermore, if there is groupthink, polarisation or a power struggle, it’s no surprise that a poor or even self-destructive decision is the outcome.

Making better decisions

Under the right circumstances, teams and groups can act in ways that actually debias organisational decisions. As Rousseau points out, it is easier to recognise biases in other people than in ourselves.

Dialogic practices can repair decision biases especially when a group or team is willing to be authentic in how they talk and think together.

Here are two key ways I’ve discovered to reduce errors in judgement and improve the quality of decision-making. Afterall, NASA did put a man on the moon, smallpox has been eradicated and vaccinations for COVID-19 were rolled out. Half of organisational decisions do succeed and here are some insights about why.

1. Solve the Right Problem

At the outset of a meeting, it is critical to figure out the ‘decision frame’, that is, the problem that needs solving, or the opportunity to seize. I’ve used what I call the ‘four Ps’ tool with many teams over the years as they tap into the four dimensions of dialogic change (see my earlier post on these four principles.) In my experience, asking questions along these four directions uncovers the ‘decision frame’ that’s needed. The Four Ps are:

  • Perspective: Over the next two years, what changes and events are on the horizon which might create opportunities and risks?
  • Performance: In what areas does the organisation need to improve its level of performance and what needs to change to make this happen?
  • People: How do your ways of working need to change so that you become an even more successful organisation?
  • Purpose: Which of your current activities as a team are aligned, misaligned and partially aligned with your organisational purpose?

At the offsite, small groups of team members discussed the first ‘P’ (perspective) and we then heard back from each sub-group to gather their insights. This active search process – for both information and understanding (which are distinct!) – lays the groundwork for the decision process. For each of the three remaining ‘P’s (performance, people and purpose), we mixed people in different groups to keep the dialogue energising. Our ‘bank’ of shared understandings gradually built as we reflected together on what they’d discussed.

Once the problem to solve becomes clear, it is easier to figure out what the best choices are about the way forward and the actions to take to implement it.

2. Read the room

When working in teams or small groups, it is essential to notice what’s happening if a conversation starts to derail, for you (whether as facilitator, leader or participant) will then need to intervene and re-focus the conversation in order to stand any chance of reaching a decision.

For decisions to be reached, it is necessary to ‘read the room.’ Foundational to this ‘reading the room’ is sharpening your observational skills. This will enable you to see that in a healthy dialogue there are ‘four speech acts’ that are present, according to David Kantor, a US systems psychologist, organisational consultant and clinical researcher. When dialogue starts to go off track, one or more of these speech acts is absent. Each of the four speech acts carries a different intention and brings a distinct quality:

• A “Move” brings direction – by saying, for example, “I suggest we talk about…”, “I think our best option is…”, “To move forward, we need to…”

• A “Follow” brings completion – by saying, for example, “I agree that…”, “It’s a great idea that we…”, “Let’s do as Chris says and…”

• An “Oppose” brings correction – by saying, for example, “I disagree that…”, “I see things differently in that…”, “I’d challenge that given…”

• A “Bystand” brings perspective – by saying, for example, “I’m noticing that…”, “There’s a pattern here…”, “What I’m observing is…”

In a productive dialogue, all four are present and there is an even flow. When a conversation becomes difficult, one or more of them are often missing. This can lead to repeated patterns amongst the speech acts that are present. When a conversation becomes rigid or draining, you can make it more dynamic by ‘reading the room’, identifying which is missing and bringing it in. The absent action is like a ‘missing vitamin.’ When you include it, the conversation is more nourishing and you’re more likely to land a decision.

At the offsite, after lunch we reminded the team of their hope to ‘bring up issues and difficult challenges.’ This was to encourage more ‘opposes’ and ‘bystands’ to happen in the meeting. There’s always a risk that edgy comments take place in the corridor with little benefit. The dialogue that followed was well worth the couple of awkward pauses that this reminder generated. Staying superficial does not lead to fruitful decisions.

Closing remarks

By the end of a productive day, we had a list of decisions made and actions agreed. Because we’d captured the insights as the dialogue unfolded, it was easy to review what we’d ‘banked’ and add names and timelines where appropriate to create some accountability. The team’s willingness to discuss tricky topics, raise concerns and disagree with one another had paid dividends. By making concrete decsions together, the team was ready to move forward with a real sense of achievement.

For reflection

Think about a team/group where you’re a member and you struggle with decision-making.

  1. What are you deciding by not deciding? 
  2. How could you use the ‘four P’s framework to uncover the problem you really need to solve together so that you move more easily to making a decision?
  3. If you ‘read the room’ of a typical meeting, which of the four ‘speech acts’ (Move/Follow/Oppose/Bystand) is most likely to be absent? How can you bring this in?


Rousseau, D. (2020) Making Evidence-Based Organizational Decisions in an Uncertain World. Organizational Dynamics 49(1):100756

Kantor, D. (2012) Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders. Jossey-Bass.

Rozenthuler, S. (2024) Now We’re Talking: How to discuss what really matters. Pearson

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler