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Improving Decision-Making In Teams

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Understanding The Four Decision Modes For Teams & Groups

One of the first steps a work team or group should make is to determine how decisions will be made by the group and members of the group. We are going to look at four different ways of coming to decisions.


Decision-making is a core process in the workplace. Decision-making processes that are ineffective, or inappropriate to the kinds of decisions made can result in higher stress levels,negative perceptions of the workplace, and in the long term, can destroy the ability of work teams to work effectively in a coordinated manner.

Before we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the four modes of decision-making we should point out that it is probably NOT desirable for a team or group to make decision using only a single mode, regardless of type of decision. Some decisions need the involvement of everyone; some can benefit from involvement of everyone, but it may not be cost-effective to do so; and some decisions simply should not involve or require input from others.

Groups need to decide WHEN and HOW decisions are to be made, matching modes with types of decision.

As a starting point consider these kinds of decision.

Decisions that:

  • affect all workgroup members (e.g.. workplace policy, certain internal processes, larger organizational issues, some workgroup task allocations, deadlines)
  • affect only a sub-set of workgroup members (e.g.. some project specific decisions)
  • affect only one person (e.g.. day-to-day job decisions)
  • fall under the mandated authority of the formal leader (e.g.. pay, performance appraisals, etc)

No doubt you can identify other types of decision-making that may occur in your workplace.

Decision-Making Modes

There are four major modes of decision-making:

  • Autocratic
  • Democratic
  • Unanimous
  • Consensus

Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Autocratic (or single decision-maker)

Autocratic decisions are made by a single person,often the person that has a formal leadership role in the organization. Unfortunately, the name has a somewhat negative connotation, and brings forth the image of the iron-fisted "ruler" in the workplace. We prefer the term "single decision-maker".


  • in many situations can be the fastest way to come to a decision
  • removes the need for consultation when a number of group members may not want to be involved with the particular decision


  • when the same person tends to make most decisions (as in the case with some formal leader situations, can result in poor decisions which can be costly in the long run
  • tends to reduce innovation since few if any other staff are involved.
  • can result in hard feelings from people who have a greater need and desire to be involved in workplace decisions.

Appropriate When:

  • the decision issue is one that affects one or only small number of people
  • when a decision needs to be made immediately, and the cost of consultation may be too high for the importance of the issue.
  • when the decision maker is the "recognized expert" on the issue and the above conditions hold.

Democratic (Majority Rules)

A second decision mode involves a majority rules situation. Decisions are made based on a formal or informal vote, usually preceded by an open discussion where pros and cons of different positions are discussed (or argued).


  • less time consuming than seeking consensus or relying on a unanimous decision.
  • allows multiple views and opinions to be presented, thus increasing the chances that sometimes neglected factors are considered.
  • provides a sense of involvement.


  • creates a Win-Lose situation for people whose ideas have been voted down
  • is an all or none proposition. A decision may be carried with a majority of 51%, leaving 49% of people unhappy.
  • may involve people in the "voting" that will not be affected by the decision, or more importantly, are not in a position to make vote in an informed, knowledgable way.

Appropriate When

  • staff on the "losing"side are not needed for implementation, or are unlikely to work to sabotage the decision
  • there is a desire to discuss multiple ideas.

Unanimity (Everyone Agrees)

We can also make decisions only if all people involved in the decision agree. If only a single person disagrees the decision isn't "passed". As with a democratic process, the decision point is usually preceded by a discussion of competing ideas.


  • Since everyone must agree, a decision made in this way is more likely than the modes above to be supported by everyone.


  • very difficult to get 100% agreement on any topic of importance.
  • can result in staff members (who are in the minority) feeling pressured to conform, since a single dissenting vote can result in a negative decision.
  • even when a unanimous decision is reached it may be a "false"agreement.
  • can be extremely time consuming, and because a single voice can prevent a decision, tends to generate status-quo type decisions

Appropriate When:

  • time is not an issue
  • the decision is either very important, personally to everyone involved, or is not very important at all


Consensus decision-making is probably the most complex of the decision-making modes. In consensus mode the group attempts to come to a decision where all group members can accept and support the decision and/or group members can commit to the decision even though it may not be their preferred solution. Some people refer to a consensus process as one that creates an “Everyone can live with the result" conclusion.

It differs from the democratic mode because it tries to eliminate the losers in the process. If the consensus process is done properly there is a lot of give and take, discussion and negotiation.


  • some suggest that consensus decision-making results in higher quality decisions.
  • may seem a fairer process than other methods


  • can be a frustrating process
  • can also be a lengthy process since the negotiating/discussion component, while more likely to return a better decision, is also a time consuming one.
  • requires advanced interpersonal skills on the part of those involved so that discussion is collaborative and supportive.
  • because of the above, it may be advisable for group members to undergo training in collaborative decision-making and cooperative communication

Appropriate When

  • commitment to the decision is critical
  • time is not an issue
  • group members have the necessary skills to undertake the process properly.
  • when the issue is of interest and concern to all (due to the time investment needed).


Despite what may be the current fad, no single mode of decision-making is "better"than the others for every situation. Is it really necessary to seek a unanimous decision on the placement of the new water cooler? Or does it make more sense to simply have one person make that decision?

No mode of decision-making guarantees a good solution, although the more people that are involved, the more likely that a number of alternatives might be put forth for consideration. Regardless of mode used good decisions need to be based on:

  • willingness of people to give up their positions and truly listen to others
  • involvement of people who have the interest and knowledge needed to make decisions on the issue. Sometimes involving the wrong people, particularly those that have no knowledge of the issues, is very counter-productive, even under the guise of involvement.
  • a climate where issues and ideas can be put on the table without fear of reprisal or embarrassment.

We recommend that teams decide when and how the different modes will be used, probably using a consensus model. We also recommend that managers make it clear when and how they will make decisions, and try to be consistent in using the different modes. Remember good decisions are decisions where the mode of decision-making reflects the importance, specific issue and time lines of the situation.

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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