Skip to main content

Decision Traps: Avoiding Barriers to Great Decision Making

May 3, 2017 3:04 pm

Quite frequently when we meet and collaborate, we’re making decisions. The many small decisions we make in meetings add up to the big decisions, which in turn change organizations and create progress. Sometimes, in the rush to get things done, we breeze through these small decisions without considering everyone who may be affected. We may end up making big changes that don’t work for everyone and must be reversed, wasting time and energy in the process. Many of us have good intentions, but yet again, we’ve fallen into a decision trap. So how can we avoid them?

The first step in avoiding most decision traps is being able to identify them before they suck you in. As always, doing our research and asking questions to inform our decision-making ahead of time can save us a lot of grief down the road. Here are some dangers we can identify and resolve using some simple yet practical strategies:

Not Enough Customer Information: If the needs of internal and external customers are not known or are not clear enough, we run the risk of making decisions that don’t meet their needs. If we make enough of these, we run the greater risk of developing an outcome or product that completely misses the mark. This is one of the biggest and riskiest decision traps. The strategies to use are:

  • Do a pre-meeting customer analysis to ensure all critical stakeholder viewpoints are taken into consideration. A good stakeholder analysis bridges a good representation of those who will be affected. Ensure that you allow people to express how they feel about decisions, not just what they think – this demands doing a qualitative as well as quantitative analysis.
  • Email the results of your analysis including common themes pre-meeting to ensure those who like to prep are well informed entering into the meeting.
  • Quickly review those results at a high-level at the beginning of the meeting to ensure that the all members are equally informed.  
  • In the meeting, include a good representation of stakeholders who are going to have to “live with the decision” at the end of the day. Make sure to give these people time to voice their concerns – not giving them enough time to speak is worse than not inviting them at all.

Roles and Empowerment are Unclear: If decision-making authority has not been clearly identified prior to the meeting, team members may go through an entire meeting or process with an unrealistic expectation of their own role in a decision. This can lead to serious conflicts if they perceive the rug has been pulled out from under them after engaging in a long collaborative process where a “final” decision was reached, when in fact the leader implements a different decision in the end. The strategies to use are:

  • Identify decision-making authority pre-meeting with the team lead/manager. Decision-making authority can be broken down into 4 levels of empowerment. Level 1 – management makes the decision and shares it. Level 2 – management has a decision in mind but wants feedback from the group before finalizing it. Level 3 – staff are asked to make recommendations with management reserving the right to make the final decision. Level 4 – staff are fully empowered to make to decision and implement it. Know which level your group’s decision-making authority lies and announce it at the beginning of the meeting to ensure full transparency.

Personal Agendas/Little Picture Thinking: It’s all too common for team members to walk into a meeting with a personal agenda, even when there is a sense that a consensus is in place. Unless we are aware of them, these personal agendas can take over and lead us right into a decision trap. Personal agendas can masquerade as group agendas: a team member may believe they are speaking on behalf of a group or department and focus only on their needs or protecting the status quo, instead of seeing the bigger picture of the whole organization. Strategies to use could include:

  • It’s important that you help the group identify the purpose for the meeting and why it’s being held – is the purpose to achieve our individual needs only or the needs of the company? If they agree it’s the company, then an additional norm should be ‘when we debate, we do it from a ‘we/company’ perspective rather than an ‘I/department perspective’. You should ensure that everyone monitors this and has permission to call out if anyone breaks this norm.
  • Take an early pulse (a survey or pre-meeting interview works best) to determine where people stand. It’s important to recognize an individual’s agenda and make them feel heard. Once this has been accomplished, make it clear that personal agendas need to stay at the door to ensure we focus our discussion on the larger, company-wide issue/opportunity.

In most cases the above strategies will enable a better path to successful decision-making. However, we may need these additional tools at our disposal, or risk falling into a decision trap despite our best efforts at preparation:

  • A Fall Back Decision Option: Always have a “Plan B” option ready that will work for the team. At the start of the meeting, have the group agree to this Plan B (a majority vote, delegation, or compromise) that will occur by default should a consensus not be reached. Check out my article “Troubleshooting the Action Plan” for advice on how to design your Plan B.
  • A Methodology for Difficult Behaviors: A team member that ends up dominating and sidetracking the meeting can obliterate your best preparation. Employ ‘targeted’ norms to redirect specific dysfunctional behaviour, and have a look at my previous article “Push vs. Pull” for some strategies on dealing with resistance.
  • Flexibility: Be open to modifying your process if the group agrees the ‘meeting purpose’ needs to change. Check out my previous article “Scrap It!” for tips on how to breeze through this process!


What additional decision traps have you fallen into? What helped you get out of the abyss? Let us know by leaving a comment below!  


Let us Know

Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!