10 Making Decisions in Groups

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the pros and cons of individual and group decision-making
  • Compare and contrast different group decision-making methods
  • Describe strategies for reaching consensus
  • Recognize the signs of groupthink

When it comes to decision-making, are two heads better than one? The answer to this question depends on several factors. In this chapter, we will discuss the advantages and drawbacks of group decision-making and identify different methods for making decisions as a group. We will also offer strategies for reaching consensus and address one of the common flaws in group decision-making — groupthink.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Group Decision-Making

Group decision-making has the advantage of drawing from the experiences and perspectives of a larger number of individuals. Hence, the ideas have the potential to be more creative and lead to a more effective decision. In fact, groups may sometimes achieve results beyond what they could have done as individuals. Groups also make the task more enjoyable for members in question. Finally, when the decision is made by a group rather than a single individual, implementation of the decision will be easier because group members will be invested in the decision. If the group is diverse, better decisions may be made because different group members may have different ideas based on their backgrounds and experiences. Research shows that for top management teams, groups that debate issues and that are diverse make decisions that are more comprehensive and better for the bottom line in terms of profitability and sales (Simons et al., 1999).

Despite its popularity within organizations, group decision-making suffers from a number of disadvantages. While groups have the potential to arrive at an effective decision, they often suffer from process losses (Miner, 1984). For example, groups may suffer from coordination problems. Anyone who has worked with a team of individuals on a project can attest to the difficulty of coordinating members’ work or even coordinating everyone’s presence in a team meeting. Furthermore, groups can suffer from social loafing, as discussed previously. Groups may also suffer from groupthink, the tendency to avoid critical evaluation of ideas the group favors, as will be discussed later in this chapter. Finally, group decision-making takes a longer time compared with individual decision-making, given that all members need to discuss their thoughts regarding different alternatives.

Thus, whether an individual or a group decision is preferable will depend on the specifics of the situation. For example, if there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made quickly, individual decision-making might be preferred. Individual decision-making may also be appropriate if the individual in question has all the information needed to make the decision and if implementation problems are not expected. However, if one person does not have all the information and skills needed to make the decision, if implementing the decision will be difficult without the involvement of those who will be affected by the decision, and if time urgency is more modest, then decision-making by a group may be more effective.

Methods of Making Group Decisions

Research does indicate that groups generate more ideas and make more accurate decisions on matters for which a known preferred solution exists, but they also operate more slowly than individuals (Hoy et al., 1982). Under time pressure and other constraints, some group leaders exercise their power to make a decision unilaterally—alone—because they’re willing to sacrifice a degree of accuracy for the sake of speed. Sometimes this behavior turns out to be wise; sometimes it doesn’t.

Assuming that a group determines that it must reach a decision together on some matter, rather than deferring to the will of a single person, it can proceed according to several methods. Parker and Hoffman (2006), along with Hartley and Dawson (2010), place decision-making procedures in several categories. Here is a synthesis of their views of how decision-making can take place:

“A Plop”

A group may conduct a discussion in which members express views and identify alternatives but then reach no decision and take no action. When people go their own ways after such a “plop,” things sometimes take care of themselves, and the lack of a decision causes no difficulties. On the other hand, if a group ignores or postpones a decision that really needs attention, its members may confront tougher decisions later—some of which may deal with problems brought about by not addressing a topic when it was at an early stage.

Delegation to an Expert

In some cases, groups may make a decision by expert. A group may not be ready to make a decision at a given time, either because it lacks sufficient information or is experiencing unresolved conflict among members with differing views. In such a situation, the group may not want to simply drop the matter and move on. Instead, it may turn to one of its members who everyone feels has the expertise to choose wisely among the alternatives that the group is considering. The group may also turn to an outside expert, someone who is external to the group who may be able to provide guidance. The group can either ask the expert to come back later with a final proposal or simply allow the person to make the decision alone after having gathered whatever further information he or she feels is necessary.


Group members may shift their individual stances regarding a question by “splitting the difference” to reach a “middle ground.” This technique tends to work most easily if numbers are involved. For instance, a group trying to decide how much money to spend on a gift for a departing member might ask everyone for a preferred amount and agree to spend whatever is computed by averaging those amounts.


If you need to be quick and definitive in making a decision, voting is probably the best method. Everyone in mainstream American society is familiar with the process, for one thing, and its outcome is inherently clear and obvious. A majority vote requires that more than half of a group’s members vote for a proposal, whereas a proposal subject to a two-thirds vote will not pass unless twice as many members show support as those who oppose it.

Voting is essentially a win/lose activity. You can probably remember a time when you or someone else in a group composed part of a strong and passionate minority whose desires were thwarted because of the results of a vote. How much commitment did you feel to support the results of that vote?

Voting does offer a quick and simple way to reach decisions, but it works better in some situations than in others. If the members of a group see no other way to overcome a deadlock, for instance, voting may make sense. Likewise, very large groups and those facing serious time constraints may see advantages to voting. Finally, the efficiency of voting is appealing when it comes to making routine or noncontroversial decisions that need only to be officially approved.


Consensus is another decision-making rule that groups may use when the goal is to gain support for an idea or plan of action. While consensus tends to take longer in the first place, it may make sense when support is needed to enact the plan. The process works by discussing the issues, generating a proposal, calling for consensus, and discussing any concerns. If concerns still exist, the proposal is modified to accommodate them. These steps are repeated until consensus is reached. Thus, this decision-making rule is inclusive, participatory, cooperative, and democratic. Research shows that consensus can lead to better accuracy (Roch, 2007), and it helps members feel greater satisfaction with decisions (Mohammed & Ringseis, 2001) and to have greater acceptance. However, groups take longer with this approach, and groups that cannot reach consensus become frustrated (Peterson, 1999). 

Five people place their hand on a a wooden table
While it can be challenging and time-consuming, consensus is considered to be the most ideal method of decision-making. (Clay Banks/We Are Better When We are United/Unsplash)

Consensus should not be confused with unanimity, which means only that no one has explicitly stated objections to a proposal or decision. Although unanimity can certainly convey an accurate perspective of a group’s views at times, groupthink, as discussed below, also often leads to unanimous decisions. Therefore, it’s probably wise to be cautious when a group of diverse people seems to have formed a totally unified bloc with respect to choices among controversial alternatives.

When a consensus decision is reached through a full interchange of views and is then adopted in good faith by all parties to a discussion, it can energize and motivate a group. Besides avoiding the win/lose elements intrinsic to voting, it converts each member’s investment in a decision into a stake in preserving and promoting the decision after it has been agreed upon.

Guidelines for Seeking Consensus

How can a group actually go about working toward consensus? Here are some guidelines for the process:

  • First, be sure everyone knows the definition of consensus and is comfortable with observing them. For many group members, this may mean suspending judgment and trying something they’ve never done before. Remind people that consensus requires a joint dedication to moving forward toward improvement in and by the group.
  • Second, endeavor to solicit participation by every member of the group. Even the naturally quietest person should be actively “polled” from time to time for his or her perspectives. In fact, it’s a good idea to take special pains to ask for varied viewpoints when discussion seems to be stalled or contentious.
  • Third, listen honestly and openly to each group member’s viewpoints. Attempt to seek and gather information from others. Do your best to subdue your emotions and your tendency to judge and evaluate.
  • Fourth, be patient. Reaching consensus often takes much more time than voting would. A premature “agreement” reached because people give in to speed things up or avoid conflict is likely later to weaken or fall apart.
  • Fifth, always look for mutually acceptable ways to make it through challenging circumstances. Don’t resort to chance mechanisms like flipping a coin, and don’t trade decisions arbitrarily just so that things come out equally for people who remain committed to opposing views.
  • Sixth, resolve gridlock earnestly. Stop and ask, “Have we really identified every possible feasible way that our group might act?” If members of a group simply can’t agree on one alternative, see if they can all find and accept the next-best option. Then be sure to request an explicit statement from them that they are prepared to genuinely commit themselves to that option.

One variation on consensus decision-making calls upon a group’s leader to ask its members, before initiating a discussion, to agree to a deadline and a “safety valve.” The deadline would be a time by which everyone in the group feels they need to have reached a decision. The “safety valve” would be a statement that any member can veto the will of the rest of the group to act in a certain way, but only if he or she takes responsibility for moving the group forward in some other positive direction.

Although consensus entails full participation and assent within a group, it usually can’t be reached without guidance from a leader. One college president we knew was a master at escorting his executive team to consensus. Without coercing or rushing them, he would regularly involve them all in discussions and lead their conversations to a point at which everyone was nodding in agreement, or at least conveying acceptance of a decision. Rather than leaving things at that point, however, the president would generally say, “We seem to have reached a decision to do XYZ. Is there anyone who objects?” Once people had this last opportunity to add further comments of their own, the group could move forward with a sense that it had a common vision in mind.

Consensus decision-making is easiest within groups whose members know and respect each other, whose authority is more or less evenly distributed, and whose basic values are shared. Some charitable and religious groups meet these conditions and have long been able to use consensus decision-making as a matter of principle. The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, began using consensus as early as the 17th century. Its affiliated international service agency, the American Friends Service Committee, employs the same approach. The Mennonite Church has also long made use of consensus decision-making.


Have you ever been in a decision-making group that you felt was heading in the wrong direction, but you didn’t speak up and say so? If so, you have already been a victim of groupthink. Groupthink is a group pressure phenomenon that increases the risk of the group making flawed decisions by leading to reduced mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment. According to Janis (1972), groupthink is characterized by eight symptoms that include:

Crewmembers from the Challenger
Avoiding groupthink can be a matter of life or death. In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The decision to launch the Challenger that day, despite problems with mechanical components of the vehicle and unfavorable weather conditions, is cited as an example of groupthink. (Credit: NASA/Challenger flight 51-l crew/Public Domain)
  1. Illusion of invulnerability shared by most or all of the group members creates excessive optimism and encourages them to take extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalizations where members downplay negative information or warnings that might cause them to reconsider their assumptions.
  3. An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality may incline members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups are seen when groups discount rivals’ abilities to make effective responses.
  5. Direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments.
  6. Self-censorship is when members of the group minimize their own doubts and counterarguments.
  7. Illusion of unanimity is based on self-censorship and direct pressure on the group; the lack of dissent is viewed as unanimity.
  8. The emergence of self-appointed mindguards where one or more members protect the group from information that runs counter to the group’s assumptions and course of action.

Groups do tend to be more likely to suffer from symptoms of groupthink when they are large and when the group is cohesive because the members like each other (Esser, 1998; Mullen et al., 1994).  The assumption is that the more frequently a group displays one or more of the eight symptoms, the worse the quality of their decisions will be. However, if your group is cohesive, it is not necessarily doomed to engage in groupthink.

Recommendations for Avoiding Groupthink

The following are strategies for avoiding groupthink:

Groups Should:

  • Discuss the symptoms of groupthink and how to avoid them.
  • Assign a rotating devil’s advocate to every meeting.
  • Invite experts or qualified colleagues who are not part of the core decision-making group to attend meetings, and get reactions from outsiders regularly and share these with the group.
  • Encourage a culture of difference where different ideas are valued.
  • Debate the ethical implications of the decisions and potential solutions being considered.

Individuals Should:

  • Monitor their own behavior for signs of groupthink and modify behavior if needed.
  • Check themselves for self-censorship.
  • Carefully avoid mindguard behaviors.
  • Avoid putting pressure on other group members to conform.
  • Remind members of the ground rules for avoiding groupthink if they get off track.

Group Leaders Should:

  • Break the group into two subgroups from time to time.
  • Have more than one group work on the same problem if time and resources allow it. This makes sense for highly critical decisions.
  • Remain impartial and refrain from stating preferences at the outset of decisions.
  • Set a tone of encouraging critical evaluations throughout deliberations.
  • Create an anonymous feedback channel where all group members can contribute if desired.


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Small Group Communication Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine R. Linabary, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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