Increasing Participation in Decision Making

Managers do make some decisions as individuals, but decision makers more often are part of a group.  Major decisions in the business world  rarely are made entirely  by an individual. Effective  decision making often depends on whether managers involve the right people in the right ways in helping to solve problems. One model that provides guidance for practic- ing managers was originally  developed by Victor Vroom and Arthur Jago.51


The Vroom-Jago model helps a manager gauge the appropriate  amount  of participation by subordinates in making  a specific decision. The model has three major components: leader participation  styles, a set of diagnostic questions with which to analyze a decision situation, and a series of decision rules.

Leader Participation Styles. The model employs five levels of subordinate participation in decision making, ranging from highly autocratic (leader decides alone) to highly democratic  (leader delegates to group),  as illustrated  in Exhibit 6.6.52 The exhibit shows five decision styles, starting  with the leader making  the decision alone (Decide);

presenting the problem to subordinates individually  for their suggestions and then making the decision (Consult Individually); presenting the problem to subordinates  as a group, collectively obtaining their ideas and suggestions, then making the decision(Consult Group); sharing the problem with subordinates as a group and acting as a facilitator to help the group arrive at a decision (Facilitate);  or delegating the problem and permitting the group to make the decision within prescribed limits (Delegate).

Diagnostic Questions. How does a manager  decide  which of the five decision styles to use? The appropriate degree of decision participation depends on a number of situa- tional factors, such as the required level of decision quality, the level of leader or subordinate expertise, and the importance of having subordinates commit to the decision. Leaders can analyze the appropriate degree of participation by answering seven diagnostic  questions.

  1. Decision significance: How significant is this decision for the project or organization?  If the quality of the decision is highly important to the success of the project or organization, the leader has to be actively involved.
  2. Importance of commitment: How important  is subordinate commitment to carrying out the decision? If implementation requires  a high level of commitment to the decision, leaders should involve subordinates in the decision process.
  3. Leader expertise: What is the level of the leader’s expertise in relation to the problem? If the leader does not have a high amount of information, knowledge, or expertise, the leader should involve subordinates to obtain it.
  4. Likelihood of commitment: If the leader were to make the decision alone, would subordinates have high or low commitment  to the decision? If subordinates typically go along with what- ever the leader decides, their involvement in the decision-making process will be less important.
  5. Group support  for goals: What  is the degree of subordinate support for the team’s or organiza- tion’s objectives at stake in this decision? If subordinates have low support for the goals of the organization, the leader should not allow the group to make the decision alone.
  1. Group expertise: What is the level of group members’ knowledge and expertise in relation to the problem? If subordinates  have a high level of expertise in relation to the problem, more responsibility for the decision can be delegated to them.
  2. Team competence: How skilled and committed  are group members to working  together as a team to solve problems? When subordinates have high skills and high desire to work to- gether cooperatively to solve problems, more responsibility for decision making  can be delegated to them.

These  questions  seem detailed,  but considering  these seven situational  factors  can quickly narrow the options and point to the appropriate level of group participation in deci- sion making.

Selecting a Decision Style. The decision matrix in Exhibit 6.7 allows  a manager to adopt a participation  style by answering the diagnostic questions in se- quence. The manager enters the matrix at the left-hand  side, at Problem Statement, and considers the seven situational questions in sequence from left to right, answering high (H) or low (L) to each one and avoiding  crossing any horizontal  lines. The first question would be: How significant  is this decision for the project or organization?  If the answer is High, the leader proceeds to importance of commitment: How important is subordinate commitment  to carrying  out the decision? An answer of High leads to a ques- tion about leader  expertise:  What  is the level of the leader’s expertise in relation to the problem? If the leader’s knowledge  and expertise is High, the leader next considers likelihood of commitment: If the leader were to make the decision alone, how likely  is it that  subordinates  would  be committed  to the decision? A high likelihood that subordinates would be committed  means the decision matrix leads directly  to the Decide style of decision making, in which the leader makes the decision alone and presents it to the group.

The Vroom-Jago model has been criticized as being  less than perfect,53 but it is useful to managers, and the body of supportive research is growing.54  Managers can use the model to make timely, high-quality decisions. Consider the application of the model to the fol- lowing hypothetical problem.

The Vroom-Jago model in Exhibit 6.7 shows that Robbins used the correct decision style. Moving from left to right in Exhibit 6.7, the questions  and answers are as fol- lows: How significant is the decision? Definitely high. The company’s future might be at stake. How important  is subordinate commitment to the decision? Also high. The team members must support and implement Robbins’ solution.  What is the level of Robbins’s information  and expertise? Probably  low. Even though he has spent  several weeks re-searching the seized engines, other team members have additional information and ex- pertise that needs to be considered. If Robbins  makes the decision on his own,  would  team members have high or low commitment  to it? The answer to this question is probably also low. Even though  team members respect Robbins, they take pride in their work as a team and know Robbins does not have complete information.  This leads to the ques- tion, What  is the degree of subordinate  support  for the team’s or organization’s objectives at stake in this decision? Definitely high. This leads to the question,  What  is the level of group members’ knowledge  and  expertise in relation to the problem? The answer to this question is low, which leads to the Consult Group decision  style, as described  earlier in Exhibit 6.6. Thus, Robbins  used the style that would be recommended  by the Vroom-Jago model.

In many situations,  several decision styles might be equally acceptable. However,  smart managers are encouraging greater employee participation  in solving problems whenever possible. The use of new knowledge management technologies allows for accessing the ideas and knowledge  of a much broader group of people, both inside and outside the orga- nization.56  Broad participation often leads to better decisions. Involving  others in decision making  also contributes to individual and organizational learning, which is critical for rapid decision making in a turbulent  environment.


The ability to make fast, widely supported, high-quality  decisions on a frequent  basis is a critical skill in today’s fast-moving organizations.57 In many industries, the rate of competi- tive and technological  change is so extreme that opportunities  are fleeting, clear and com- plete information is seldom available, and the cost of a slow decision means lost business or even company failure. Do these factors mean managers should make the majority  of deci- sions on their own? No. The rapid pace of the business environment   calls for just the opposite—that is, for people throughout the organization to be involved in decision mak- ing and have the information,  skills, and freedom they need to respond immediately to problems and questions. Business is taking a lesson from today’s military.  For example, the U.S. Army, once considered the ultimate example of a rigid, top-down organization, is pushing information  and decision making to junior officers in the field. Fighting a fluid, fast-moving,  and fast-changing terrorist  network means that people who are knowledge- able about the local situation  have to make quick decisions, learning through trial and error and sometimes departing from standard Army procedures. Junior leaders rely on a strong set of core values and a clear understanding  of the mission to craft creative solutions to problems that the Army might never have encountered before.58

Similarly, in today’s fast-moving  businesses, people often  have to act first and analyze later.59 Top managers do not have the time to evaluate options for every decision, conduct research, develop alternatives, and tell people what to do and how to do it. When speed matters,  a slow decision  may be as ineffective  as the wrong decision, and companies can learn to make decisions fast. Effective decision making under turbulent  conditions relies on the following guidelines.

Start with Brainstorming. One of the best-known techniques for rapidly gen- erating creative alternatives is brainstorming. Brainstorming  uses a face-to-face interac- tive group to spontaneously  suggest a wide range of alternatives for decision making. The keys to effective brainstorming are that people can build  on one another’s ideas; all ideas are acceptable, no matter how crazy they seem; and criticism  and evaluation are not allowed. The goal is to generate as many  ideas as possible. Brainstorming has been found  to be highly effective for quickly  generating a wide range of alternate solutions to a problem,  but it does have some drawbacks. For one, people in a group often want to conform to what others are saying, a problem  sometimes  referred  to as groupthink.  Others may be concerned about pleasing the boss or impressing  colleagues. In addition,  many creative people simply have social inhibitions that limit their participation in a group session or make it difficult to come up with ideas in a group setting. In fact, one study found that when four people are asked to “brainstorm” individually, they typically come up with twice as many  ideas as a group of four brainstorming together.

One approach, electronic brainstorming, takes advantage of the group approach while overcoming  some disadvantages. Electronic brainstorming,  sometimes called brain- writing, brings people together in an interactive group over a computer network.60   One member writes an idea, another reads it and adds other ideas, and so on. Studies show that electronic brainstorming generates about 40 percent more ideas than individuals brain- storming  alone, and 25 to 200 percent more ideas than regular brainstorming  groups, depending on group size.61  Why?  Because the process is anonymous,  so the sky’s the limit in terms of what people feel free to say. People can write down their ideas immediately, avoiding the possibility that a good idea might slip away while the person is waiting for a chance to speak in a face-to-face group. Social inhibitions  and concerns are avoided, which typically allows for a broader  range of participation. Another advantage is that electronic brainstorming  can potentially  be done with groups made up of employees from around the world, further increasing the diversity of alternatives.

Learn, Don’t Punish. Decisions made under conditions of uncertainty and time pressure produce  many errors, but smart managers are willing to take the risk in the spirit of trial and error. If a chosen decision alternative fails, the organization can learn from it and try another alterna- tive that better fits the situation. Each failure provides new information and learning. People throughout  the organi- zation are encouraged to engage in experi- mentation, which means taking risks and learning from their mistakes. Good man- agers know  that every time  a person makes a decision,  whether  it turns out to have positive or negative consequences, it helps the employee learn and be a better  deci- sion maker the next time around. By making mistakes,  people  gain valuable experience  and knowledge  to  perform more effectively in the future. PSS World Medical of Jacksonville, Florida, encour- ages people to take initiative  and try new things with a policy of never firing anyone for an honest mistake. In addition, PSS promises to find another, more appropri-ate job in the company for any employee who is failing in his or her current position. This “soft landing”  policy fosters a climate in which  mistakes and failure  are viewed as opportunities to learn and improve.62

When people are afraid to make mistakes, the company is stuck. For example, when Robert Crandall led American Airlines, he built a culture  in which any problem that caused a flight delay was followed  by finding someone to blame. People became so scared of mak- ing a mistake  that whenever something went wrong, no one was willing to jump in and try to fix the problem. In contrast, Southwest Airlines uses what it calls team delay, which means a flight delay is everyone’s problem.  This puts the emphasis on fixing the problem rather than on finding an individual to blame.63  In a turbulent  environment,  managers do not use mistakes and failure  to create a climate  of fear. Instead, they encourage people to take risks and move ahead with the decision process, despite the potential for errors.

Know When to Bail. Even though  managers encourage risk taking and learning from mistakes, they also aren’t hesitant to pull the plug on something that is not working. Research found that organizations often continue to invest time and money in a solution despite strong evidence that it is not appropriate. This tendency is referred to as escalat- ing commitment. Managers might block or distort negative information  because they don’t want to be responsible for a bad decision, or they might simply refuse to accept that their solution is wrong. A study in Europe verified that even highly successful managers often miss or ignore  warning  signals because they become committed  to a decision  and believe if they persevere it will pay off.64 As companies face increasing competition,  com- plexity, and change, it is important that managers don’t get so attached to their own ideas that they’re unwilling to recognize when to move on. According to Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, the key to successful creative decision making  is to “fail early, fail often, and pull the plug early.”65

Practice  the Five Whys. One way to encourage good decision making  under high uncertainty is to get people to think more broadly and deeply about problems rather than going with a superficial  understanding  and a first response. However,  this approach doesn’t mean people have to spend hours analyzing a problem and gathering research. One simple procedure adopted by a number  of leading companies is known as the five whys.66 For every problem,  employees learn to ask “Why?” not just once, but five times. The first why generally produces a superficial explanation for the problem, and each subsequent why probes deeper into the causes of the problem and potential solutions. The point of the five whys is to improve how people think about problems and generate alternatives for solving them.

Engage in  Rigorous Debate. An important key to better decision making under conditions of uncertainty is to encourage a rigorous  debate of the issue at hand.67

Good managers recognize that constructive conflict based on divergent points of view can bring a problem   into focus, clarify people’s ideas, stimulate  creative thinking, create  a broader understanding of issues and alternatives,  and improve  decision  quality.68 Chuck Knight, the former CEO of Emerson Electric,  always sparked heated debates during  stra- tegic planning meetings. Knight believed rigorous  debate gave people a clearer picture  of the competitive landscape and forced managers to look at all sides of an issue, helping  them reach better decisions.69

Stimulating  rigorous debate can be done in several ways. One way is by ensuring that the group is diverse in terms of age and gender, functional  area of expertise, hierarchical level, and experience with the business. Some groups assign a devil’s advocate, who has the role of challenging  the assumptions and assertions made by the group.70  The devil’s ad- vocate may force the group to rethink its approach to the problem and avoid reaching pre- mature conclusions. Jeffrey McKeever,  CEO of MicroAge, often plays the devil’s advocate, changing his position in the middle of a debate to ensure that other executives don’t just go along with his opinions.71 Another approach is to have group members develop as many alter- natives  as they can  as quickly as  they can.72 It allows the team to work with multiple alternatives and encourages people  to advocate  ideas they might not prefer simply to encourage debate. Still another way to encourage constructive conflict  is to use a technique called point-counterpoint, which breaks a decision-making  group into two subgroups and assigns them different, often competing responsibilities.73  The groups then develop and exchange proposals and discuss and debate the various options until they arrive at a common set of understandings and recommendations.

Decision making in today’s high-speed,  complex environment  is one of the most important—and most challenging—responsibilities for managers. By using brainstorming, learning from mistakes rather than assigning blame, knowing when to bail, practicing the five whys, and engaging in rigorous debate, managers can improve the quality and effective- ness of their organizational decisions.

Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.

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