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  • Writer's pictureYoram Solomon, PhD

Decision-Making and TRUST

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

Peter Drucker said that there are times to make decisions and there are times to create rules. This article focuses on those times in which you must make decisions. Whether a leader or a member of a team, how do you make decisions? Generally, there are three main decision-making processes, with multiple variants: consultative, majority, and consensus. A small-scale LinkedIn poll I conducted showed that 59% preferred to make consultative decisions, 12% preferred decisions by a majority, and 24% opted for consensus.

First, we must consider that the choice of a decision-making process is contextual. Sometimes, decisions must be made by the leader without consulting anyone (e.g., on the battlefield). In other cases, the leader might consult with team members and then make a decision. Sometimes the team should make decisions, whether by the majority (typically when there is no time for discussion) or through consensus.

The choice of the decision-making process and how it is made is the result of the level of trust that already exists in the team, but also affects that trust. One of the most obvious ways the selection affects trust in the leader is whether the leader made it clear upfront what the decision-making process will be. For example, when the leader consults with the team and leads them to believe that s/he will consider their input and then appears to override their recommendation—the team will likely trust the leader less.

This article will discuss the top three decision-making processes and include implications by and to trust.

Consultative Decision-Making

During battle, there is often not enough time to consult with team members when making decisions. Even though those are often life-and-death decisions. At the same time, the leader usually has a bigger picture of the battle and may not need such consultation. In the organizational setting, though, while the leader may have the bigger picture, they might not be close enough to where work is being done, and thus consulting with team members is appropriate. Some leaders will consult with team members individually (“star” topology) and make the final decisions without team discussion. Others would consult with the entire team at once. Having a high level of trust in the team member would make the leader feel more comfortable having such team discussions. The question then arises of whether the leader might override the overall recommendation by the team. When that happens, the team will lose trust in the leader, especially if they consider the leader less competent or informed than they are.

It should be noted that when the leader delegates the decision to the team while showing trust in their team, they are (and should) not delegate responsibility. The leader will always remain responsible for the outcome of the decision, even if they trusted the team entirely with the decision.

You should also note that when the leader overrides the team members’ recommendations, the team will feel less accountable for the results.

Decision by Majority

When the information is relatively available to all team members, often when the decision is a low-level decision, and there is no time for a lengthy debate, the leader may opt to use the decision-by-majority. Everyone knows all the details, and the decision is really a matter of applying values, boundaries, and rules to the set of circumstances.

Majority-based decision-making has a dark downside. It lends itself to hallway agreements, holding the meeting before and after the meeting, and avoiding the meeting during the meeting. This type of decision-making process typically takes place when the overall level of trust in the team is low, when agendas are hidden, and preexisting personality compatibility takes precedence over empathy, the acceptance that there are (at least) two sides to every story, and the team members’ listening skills. The focus becomes expediency rather than the quality of the decision.

Decision through Consensus

The dictionary definition of consensus suggests a “general agreement.” Some dictionaries suggest that consensus and unanimity are synonymous, but they are not. When a team reaches a consensus, a few members may still not agree with the outcome but would have a much easier time supporting the decision because they feel their position was heard and considered. The role of the leader in consensus-seeking is to facilitate the discussion, to assure that all people and opinions are heard (to the extent feasible within the decision timeline restrictions), that nobody monopolizes the discussion, and that a sense of a “general agreement” is reached at the end. It typically occurs when, after a thorough discussion, the leader asks, “so, can I summarize the consensus as…?” and team members nod with their heads in approval, even if reluctantly.

Using the consensus decision-making method requires trust. Team members must trust each other to be willing to engage in constructive disagreement. Disagreement is necessary for consensus-building; without it, not all opinions are heard. In one of my surveys, I found that team members are ten times more likely to avoid disagreement, believe it is unproductive, or not feel comfortable engaging in it when the level of trust is low. But when the trust level is high, they are 141% more likely to be willing to engage in disagreements, even passionate ones, without letting them become personal, emotional, and irrational.

One comment to my LinkedIn poll indicated that reaching a consensus is great as long as there are no individual agendas. I must take exception to that statement. Individual agendas should be brought to the discussion table, as long as they focus on the outcome to the team and not personal, and as long as they are “above the fold” and not hidden.

If majority-based decision-making is focused on preexisting personality compatibility, consensus-based decision-making is focused on developing personality compatibility, which, in turn, helps build trust.

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Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that help build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events.

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