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Decisions, Decisions: Choosing the Right Decision-Making Approach for Your Organizational Culture

“I’m almost scared to say this, but… sometimes it feels like in the social justice world it’s been decided that the most equitable way to make decisions is by consensus. I feel judged or not ‘woke enough’ for disagreeing with that belief.”  – organizational structure workshop participant

Does this sound familiar? When we fall into the narrow headspace of there being only One True Way, we limit possibility. This is the case even with powerful approaches like consensus decision-making. Humans love simplifying things, which helps us navigate the chaos of the world more smoothly. But decision-making is one area where we can cause harm when we categorically deem certain forms of decision-making inherently better or worse than others.

Instead, we need to build intentional decision-making cultures in our organizations with shared agreements, processes, and habits for how we make decisions.  When we have this foundation, not only do we make decisions consistently, but we can be intentional and explicit when we need to deviate from our shared norms. In other words, each organization gets to be thoughtful about their own “one true way” and acceptable alternate routes. 

The groups we have worked with are experimenting with three different options for default decision-making cultures, each of which has pros and cons:

An Individual Makes a Decision

The individual has ultimate decision-making power, and can choose to involve others as little or as much as they desire. Different individuals within an organization can have decision-making power over specific decisions, but often those in executive leadership (e.g. executive director, co-directors, or management team) make organization-wide decisions and have veto power over other people’s decisions. 

Individual Decision-Making Pros

  • It can be fast and simple
  • It is clear who to advocate to in order to make your voice heard in the process
  • The decision-maker carries the primary emotional weight for that decision, freeing others from this emotional labor
  • It is good for crisis situations when decisions need to be made quickly  
  • Well-trusted leaders can make big, wide-ranging decisions quickly in response to a complex, unpredictable environment, sometimes leading to faster transformation than if more people were involved
  • There can be an exciting entrepreneurial culture when selected key staff are trusted to innovate and grow whole areas of work quickly

Individual Decision-Making Cons

  • It can horde power–limiting people’s influence, blocking possibilities, and preventing people from gaining decision-making skills
  • A decision-maker’s biases and limited experience can result in less-than-optimal decisions
  • The decision-maker can be vilified for their decision, isolating them
  • Long-term effectiveness can hinge on how trusted the decision-maker is, and conflict involving the decision-maker can upend the organization
  • Decisions can be made without talking to anyone else, resulting in others feeling disempowered, unheard, or uncomfortable sharing their opinions 
  • It can result in a reinforcing cycle where the decision-maker feels they can’t let go and staff feel they don’t have agency to step up

One Success Story: We worked with a national organizing group that has an inspiring, trusted, and charismatic leader. The staff join because they care about the mission and they respect the leader. For this organization, staff are clear that if there are differences of opinion, they will fall in line behind the Executive Director (ED). They are also clear that the ED delegates authority to individuals to autonomously make decisions for their campaigns. There is high trust in the organization’s mission and strategic direction, and the decision-making is clear, efficient, and aligned around common purpose. This type of decision-making enables the organization to launch advocacy campaigns quickly in response to crises, and supports a high volume of social media that is on message with minimal oversight. It also helped the organization grow rapidly over 5 years because staff have a clear sense of how each person contributes and their individual level of responsibility. Importantly, staff have high levels of trust in each other.

What Makes This Tricky to Do Well: When people feel locked out of decision-making, one person making a decision can become a tyrant. People focus on decisions that they personally don’t like or that hurt them as indicative of a leader’s lack of awareness, inability to listen, or resistance to sharing power. They rally around all the ways that more people can be involved in decision-making like restructuring organizations, unionizing, and ousting leaders. While this rallying can lead to positive transformation, in some cases it can devolve into toxic work environments. For example, when new executives of color face a glass cliff and feel unsupported by staff and board who accuse them of upholding white supremacy culture. Or, when newer/junior staff try to exercise power and feel unsupported by executives who accuse them of not being mindful or accountable for organization-wide consequences.

The Group Makes a Decision

This can look like a small team making a decision together, or an entire organization making a decision together. The approach to how they make the decision can range from voting to the consent principle to full consensus.

Group Decision-Making Pros

  • Everyone has a seat at the table and there are higher levels of buy-in to the decision from all participants
  • Diverse perspectives directly inform the decision, resulting in a potentially better decision than one person deciding in isolation (particularly in complex situations where multiple choices could work well)
  • Creative solutions can emerge from group conversations with multiple decision-makers 
  • Those who are most impacted have more power to develop solutions that work for them, if they are part of the group deciding
  • Disagreeing voices are seriously listened to, not dismissed, which deepens understanding of diverse perspectives and builds community

Group Decision-Making Cons

  • It can be time-consuming, especially if all participants are to be well-informed of a decision’s intricacies
  • Decision-making responsibility can be diffuse, resulting in a lack of responsibility for the final decision, its consequences, and implementation
  • Disagreements and tensions can slow down decision-making or even result in decisions never getting made
  • It can be hard to decide to change the status quo or express dissent
  • If only one/a few members of the group have particular expertise regarding a decision, they can be overruled by the larger group, which may not fully understand the decision’s implications

The Advice Process

This approach focuses on how the decision is made, instead of requiring that the “who” be an individual or a group. In summary: One person is responsible for a decision. But before that person makes the decision, they have to seek advice from the following:

  • Everyone who will be significantly impacted by this decision
  • People who will help them make a better decision (due to particular knowledge/expertise/lenses they may have)

The person responsible for the decision may make the decision as an individual, or may choose to ask a group of people to make the decision together. You can learn more about this approach, and access tools for engaging it effectively, by reading this blog post.

Since this approach can entail either individual or group decision-making, the pros and cons can be similar to those listed in the prior charts. However, there are some pros and cons specific to the Advice Process:

Pros Specific to Advice Process

  • Since the person who is responsible for the decision can choose to either have an individual decide or have a group decide, they can create a process that best suits the importance and impact of a given decision
  • There is responsibility to the whole since individuals are not allowed to make decisions without directly engaging with those most impacted
  • There is clarity regarding the who, what, and when of decision-making since the person who is responsible for the decision must ideally state the decision-making process up front
  • It can be fast and simple, particularly with day-to-day decisions, since folks on the ground can make decisions themselves instead of going up the chain of command for approval

Cons Specific to Advice Process

  • Individuals who don’t have good decision-making skills have a big learning curve to make decisions well, which can be particularly challenging for new staff
  • Because there are so many options for how to make the decision, it can be overwhelming/confusing to figure out the best process
  • Ensuring that you consult with everyone most impacted can be very time-consuming
  • It relies on people being able to build trust and engage in generative conversations about disagreements, in order to be able to give challenging feedback directly to the decision-maker

One Success Story: We worked with a values-aligned mid-sized nonprofit that is flourishing with this approach, as it offers autonomy for each person to take responsibility for the realms they know best. Folks are trusted by their colleagues to solicit feedback that helps them make thoughtful decisions. With important decisions where the group needs to go slow to go together, the organization uses group decision-making processes, ensuring strong buy-in. With important decisions where the group needs to move fast to take advantage of opportunities, individuals are trusted to make those decisions, ensuring agility. The overall distributed leadership model operates fluidly, with more power in the hands of frontline staff, who are supported and trusted to make those decisions well. Supervision is prioritized, with coaching provided so staff can build their skills and comfort with making decisions effectively. And the distributed leadership model allows for ample opportunities for leadership development.

What Makes This Tricky to Do Well: If folks don’t have clear roles, can’t name who holds a decision, or don’t have the capacity to give one another difficult feedback in a direct and timely manner, this approach falls apart. And if people in the organization aren’t committed to the advice process, they can abuse their power by making decisions without talking to other people or taking their feedback seriously. Folks need to be in strong relationship in order for this approach to go well. Moreover, the organization needs to have an ongoing commitment to training staff on decision making, role clarity, coordination, and feedback skills, which requires both financial resources and staff time.

There is a common theme across all three decision-making cultures: healthy, trusting relationships. Trust in each other enables an individual decider to enlist others in executing decisions, allows a group to to share and reconcile different opinions, and supports organizations using advice processes to be flexible and emergent. 

Taking time as an organization to intentionally develop your decision-making culture is a dynamic process that supports staff to live into liberatory ways of being together. Often when we have worked with organizations, changing a decision-making culture becomes a healing process where a group visibilizes assumptions and patterns in decision-making, acknowledges hurts, and rebuilds trust. When the group develops shared agreements, processes, and habits for how they make decisions, staff can feel galvanized around this “one true way.” They also have trust and accountability so there is grace when people diverge from the default culture.

We hope this conversation helps you to deepen trust and align around your “one true way” with the understanding that all three decision-making cultures could be right for your organization and will have pros and cons. We invite you to share this blog with your team, talk about what your current decision-making culture is, and discuss what you want it to be in the future.

Ananda Valenzuela, formerly the Interim Executive Director of RVC, is an independent consultant engaged in professional interim executive director work and organizational development facilitation, with a particular focus on equitable self-management and liberatory practices. Learn more at their website.

Susan Misra founded Aurora Commons LLC to nurture a society premised on the integration and oneness of planet, biota, and people as a pathway to racial equity, justice, and liberation. We have partnered with over 400 organizations, nonprofits, and networks to create shared leadership structures, develop strategies for transformative systems change, and nurture capacities for organizing and movement building.

RVC’s blog is a place where RVC staff, present and past, have a chance to learn in public, share in our collective wisdom, and advocate for wide-spread change in our organizations and our sector, sometimes in collaboration with our community of thought partners!  This blog is the third in our liberatory decision making series. You can read about RVC’s advice process here and tools for healthy decision making here.