A team meeting has as many sides as a seal. The minute you think you’ve got one side of the seal, a flip-flop takes place and you’ve lost where you were. What I’m getting at concerns the confusion about decision-making and teams. It seems to me that so many needless conflicts, perceived manipulation, and miscommunication come about when teams have unclear notions about the extent of their decision-making responsibilities. Is a team really empowered to make decisions, or is the team meeting just a clever camouflage to disguise who really makes the decisions?

Before we look at decision-making, and the various approaches to it, we have to set our sights on the four conditions that make for team success. The bedrock conditions are simple enough. Without them, the team structures that are built cannot hold because the foundation is wanting. The four essentials then, are bold leadership, interdependence, communication and full participation, and finally, the actual influence of team members.

Most leaders fret quite a bit about their power and the loss of it. Giving up some of the decision-making authority is hard to reconcile with their perceived role as the leader of the team. That’s why boldness is required. The first step for meeting managers or chairpersons is to develop and establish collaborative, facilitative techniques with their teams to the greatest extent possible. Boldness, as a poet once said, has genius, power, and daring in it.
Bold leadership, of course, starts with preparation. The Chair has certain and defined responsibilities. A plan or agenda needs to be developed and followed. In order to give and receive accurate summaries- the heart of effective meetings, a good plan is essential. But, as with most human interaction, the intangibles are what really counts. I’m referring to the ways in which the Chair builds a permissive climate, the ways minority opinion is protected, the kind and degree of decision-making that is promoted, and the ways conflict is minimized. That takes bold leadership.

It takes that kind of leadership to build interdependence. Without it, nothing significant can be achieved. The members of a team need to believe that what they say and contribute is meaningful to the discussion, and will be taken into account. All too often, some contributions, some comments, take place outside of the meeting proper. They may be legitimate, or they may be negative griping. That fact underscores a key issue. Even silence within the confines of a meeting is important. Silence must be understood as agreement. In that way, matters can proceed. The Chair needs to emphasize a point like that. Once articulated, communication and full participation can occur.

I’ve become convinced that communication, both positive and negative, needs to be given the opportunity to be heard. For instance, progressive teams will utilize the devil’s advocate role. As important as the role of the Chairperson, or Recorder, the Devil’s Advocate Role will help the group test assumptions and premises. Having a member of the group assigned to a critiquing role will enable the group to analyze implications and deliberations. It also serves as a natural venting mechanism, and properly handled, it can provide a vital and necessary counterpoint to group-think and uncritical agreement. The Devil’s Advocate Role can prove a vital link in achieving true consensus.

But what does consensus mean? What implications does it have for encouraging the contributions of the group, and the influence that team members can have on meeting proceedings and the decision-making process?

A consensus decision making process is one where all members agree to support a decision. Individual members may not completely accept the idea, but they can live with it, so to speak, and so agree to support it. For example, the General Motors teams that produced the Saturn car thought that consensus should be the 70% comfort rule, where each member is 70% comfortable with a decision made.

One physical way of showing this is through a raised hand A hand raised with all fingers showing is a sign of complete support. The hand raised with only a finger or two showing is a sign of support, of consensus, but with some reservations. The hand formed into a closed fist is a sign of opposition, of lack of support and absolutely no consensus, meaning that the team member cannot live with the decision as formulated. Further discussion is necessary.

Often, a different type of decision-making process is warranted. It is one where the meeting manager or Chair consults with the group. A consultative decision making process is one in which team members are asked to provide information and suggestions, but one member, usually the leader or manager, reserves the right to make the final decision. In this way the decision-maker utilizes the group’s resources to enrich his own decision making process. The important thing to keep in mind is that the team deserves the right to know the kind of decision-making process that involves their input. Whether the decision-making is to be consensual or consultative, let the group know. Otherwise, confusion, misunderstanding, and anger will result.

One danger regarding consensual decision-making that was pointed out to me recently by a Siemens Manager concerns trying to get buy-in on even simple decisions. Many decisions simply don’t warrant consensus building. The trend today, it seems, is for consensual decision making, perhaps as a counterpoint to the authoritarian decision making of the past. A good dollop of common sense is the best test of whether to seek consensus or not.

In the next article on meeting facilitation tools and how to use them, we’ll be looking at effective methods for garnering, filtering and selecting information for a host of meeting needs. But before we do that, it’s essential for any group that meets often to conduct a team process review. This review is conducted for the purpose of improving teamwork. Teams become effective through looking at the way they function, at their interactive processes, and by learning from the experience. Most meeting teams never think about meeting process at all. They focus only on the meeting tasks at hand, the work and content of a meeting. That’s essential, of course, but it’s not enough. The best way to conduct a team process review is to appoint one team member as a Meeting Process Observer, a person who will sit apart from the team and quietly observe what is happening. Later, this observer can report on the findings. These results can then be used to make the necessary changes and improvements to meeting processes. That’s the first step. The next step, covered in the next article about meeting tools, will be of great interest to anyone keen on advancing to the farthest reaches of meeting mastery.