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Making Decisions in Action Learning Teams

Decisions that are made with the active involvement and participation of all Action Learning Team Members usually result in their enhanced emotional investment in and heightened commitment to support those decisions – and their execution.

By participation and involvement I mean that all team members are actively involved in problem identification, goal setting, problem analysis, problem solving, action planning, and – in the process — making decisions. This is especially true when Action Learning team members and their respective organizations or work units will be affected by the action taken by the team.

Many team members, Action Learning Coaches, and task or process facilitators seem to assume it is appropriate to work toward full consensus. By this, I mean that every team member is willing to go along with the majority decision – even though they may have residual doubts, concerns, or reservations. Sometimes such willingness to go along is a function of peer pressure. More usefully, it is a function of the team’s willingness to hear the dissenters out and, as a result of hearing information they had not previously taken into consideration, use what the dissenters have to say to modify their original goals or plans. This is not only gratifying to dissenters, it also helps to enhance the quality of the decisions.

I believe that trying to help teams to reach consensus is very tricky. Particularly when the decision to be made threatens the interests of some team members’ stakeholder groups, they will disagree with the majority, and make a consensus impossible. The minority – even a single person – may hold out and bring the team to an impasse. When the team members have decided to make only consensus decisions, one or two dissenters can hold the team hostage. It cannot move on until the impasse has been overcome. We used to call this tactic, the tyranny of the minority.

I invented the term, near-consensus many years ago. This occurs when a team’s communications are open enough and the team’s culture is supportive enough for all members to legitimately feel that they had a fair chance and ample opportunity to influence the decision.

Action Learning Coaches should be prepared for the possibility that a team will get stalled around the process of making decisions. The possibility for near-consensus decisions is most evident when the team is committed to making consensus decisions and one or two team members maintain their dissenting positions. At such times, the Action Learning Coach might ask:

1. I notice that the team is split around whether or not to agree to the alternative that is on the table for a decision.
2. Do the rest of you see this?
3. What is the impact of this on each of you and on the team?
4. As a team, what will you do about this? (From Skip Leonard, 2011)

Quite often, teams will consider the following: Polling can test how close the team members are to a full consensus. That is, each member says a few words about his or her preference along with a rationale and the hopes and fears that underlie her or his preference. When it becomes evident that team members are repeating their arguments and/or when feelings begin to intensify, the team may realize it is time to reconsider its original decision. So, instead of committing themselves to only full consensus decisions, the team could decide to strive for full consensus but protect itself from the tyranny of the individual by agreeing that it will move on even though one or two dissenters remain unconvinced. This is what I have called a near-consensus. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, dissenters can write and publish their doubts, concerns, and reservations. This tends to maximize the learning derived from considering how Action Learning teams make their decisions.

Arthur M. Freedman, MBA, Ph.D., MALC

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