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close this bookTraining for Elected Leadership - The Councillor as Decision-maker (HABITAT, 1994, 22 p.)
close this folderPart I. Essay on the councillor as decision-maker
View the documentDefinition
View the documentSummary
View the documentReflection
View the documentConcepts and ideas
View the documentBe rational!
View the documentProblem identification
View the documentAwareness and vision
View the documentReflection
View the documentProblems, symptoms and solutions
View the documentTalk to your problem
View the documentFurther analysis
View the documentQuality and acceptance
View the documentConsequences
View the documentWhat about group decision-making?
View the documentReflection
View the documentOther decision traps
View the documentMaking decisions in uncertainty
View the documentKey points
View the documentReferences

What about group decision-making?

As councillors, you work as a member of the municipal council and make your most important decisions as a member of that group. Much of what has been discussed so far can apply to either individual or group decision-making. What we want to do now is focus on the phenomena of group decision-making. Many years ago, behavioural scientists started to conduct research on interpersonal relationships and group behaviour by watching, recording, and analysing these interactions. Out of this research came insights about human behaviour that can help us be more effective in our interactions with each other. Here are some of the findings on group decision making as related by Edgar Schein in his classic book Process Consultation. Schein describes the following ways that groups make decisions.

Decision by lack of response (what he and others have labeled the "Plop.") This is when someone suggests an idea and nobody responds to it. Schein says that by not responding, the group has made a decision not to support the idea or the contributor. We've all been victims of the "Plop."

Decision by formal authority or self-authorization. This type of decision- making is common in councils where the mayor or chairperson has been given certain authority to make certain decisions on behalf of the group.

Decision by minority. Have you ever felt "railroaded" into a decision by someone else? Probably, since it happens frequently when individuals get together to make decisions. "Does anyone object? - Okay, let's go ahead." or similar comments by the person in charge, or even a self-appointed leader, often obligates you to a decision that few have a commitment to.

Decision by majority rule: voting and/or polling. This is the common method of decision-making by most legislative groups around the world. The problem with this accepted and efficient way of coming to a decision is the fact that it often divides the group and leaves those who are in the minority uncommitted to the decision.

Decision by consensus. While this can be time-consuming, it is one of the most effective ways to make decisions because it builds commitment into implementing the decision. Decision by consensus is not an unheard of means of decision-making by community leaders. In fact, some of you who are reading this may be saying, "So what's new? Our people have been making decisions by consensus for generations." When the Europeans, who were exploring the North American continent in the 17th century, came across the Algonquin Indians, they were puzzled by their political norms. They saw no visible means of leadership or government within this community. The Algonquins simply had a different concept of authority and relied upon such processes as consensus building and facilitative leadership to "govern" community life.

Consensus is a process where communication is sufficiently open and supportive to make everyone feel they have an opportunity to influence the decision. Consensus is not the same as unanimity. There may still be differences of opinion, b these differences have been heard, and those who hold them are prepared to support the decision.

Decision by unanimous consent. In this case, everyone agrees on the course of action to be taken.2


Stop for a moment and review each of the different ways groups make decisions. Can you think of a situation where your council used this approach? If so, what were the consequences? If you could make this decision again, would you want to decide in a different way?

A note caution

Group decision-makers are sometimes the victims of something called "groupthink." Groupthink is the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. City councils can sometimes fall into the groupthink trap when they begin to emphasize group cohesiveness at the expense of independent critical thinking. Here are some symptoms of groupthink as it might be exhibited by your council.

First, when you and your colleagues are faced with a decision, you are inclined to limit your discussions to one or two alternatives without investigating the range of possibilities that may be available.

Secondly, you seldom seek to re-examine a decision made by the majority even when new evidence is presented that the decision may have serious risks or drawbacks not originally considered.

Thirdly, the council doesn't ask for the advice of staff or outside experts who might be able to provide more accurate information on potential gains or losses.

Fourthly, the council members show positive interest in facts and opinions that support what they have decided to do and ignore those that do not.

Jerry Harvey, a psychologist who specializes in organizational behaviour, provides a slightly different perspective on the problem of groupthink. Harvey contends that people who work closely together, like city councils, have a tendency to collude in taking actions or making decisions that none of them really agree with. Consequently, they produce results they later come to regret. According to Harvey, this might happen to you as a councillor when:3

· You are faced with making a decision on a situation that you have serious doubts on but think that other councillors favour it;

· You can act on faulty assumptions about what the other councillors want to do and even express support for the unwanted action to avoid criticism as a team player rather than communicate your true feelings and beliefs;

· The council, on the basis of invalid or inaccurate information, makes a collective decision that is contrary to what you really wanted to do which, in turn, leads to counter-productive results;

· You and other members experience frustration, even anger, when this happens and begin to blame each other for what has happened.

Many councils around the world work through the committee system. There are good reasons for using such a system, particularly if your council is large in number. It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to arrive at decisions in a large group, at least decisions that are timely and efficient. Nevertheless, there is a troublesome aspect of government by committee. There is a tendency to "rubberstamp" the other committee's recommendations so they will support our committee's decisions and recommendations. This is just another variation of the groupthink problem we've been discussing.