Group Decision Making

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This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a Tools for Change workshop about Group Decision Making, facilitated by Leah Henderson.  The workshop was replete with information and time for reflection on how these principles applied to our organizations and groups, and I left equipped with information that I am confident will be useful in growing and developing the strengths and capacities of the Local Organic Food Co-ops Network.

Important to remember: Decision-making is an emotionally-charged process.  Everyone comes with baggage from past experiences, including most commonly feeling unheard and unrespected.  The best way to mitigate this is to be very transparent about what the decision-making process is and/or will be.

Methods and Mechanisms:
Informal/Nothing - groups with small decisions to make, or small groups that have an implicit or common culture of decision making; may become non-democratic very quickly!

Consensus - striving for agreement, for everyone's voices to be heard; with big groups with lack of trust and without knowledge of an end goal, this process can be very frustrating; it is possible to use consensus-building without using consensus decision-making.  Check out the Tools for Change Consensus Guidebook here!

Modified Consensus - to a percentage of consensus or all minus 1 or 2; used when time is a limitation

Voting - set a percentage that's required for a decision to pass (majority, super-majority, etc)

Hierarchy/Decision by a Few - clear accountability, quick and efficient, but disempowering for those without power to make the decisions

Roles in a Hierarchy:

Who is involved in making the decision?
This is a very important consideration and could take on many forms, including the following:

- open door (anyone who comes)this may prevent truly informed participation in decision-making
- abides by code of conduct (those who follow the rules get to make decisions)
- commitment to mission and values and vision may close doors for dissenting voices, which can be important to forward movement of the organization
- pay money (ie. credit unions, economic participation of co-op members, due of union members)
- time commitment (ie. if you can attend a certain number of meetings per month or dedicate a certain number of hours) may reduce diversity of decision-makers, not accounting for systemic barriers to time commitments
- elected (vote for who makes the decisions)
- appointed/invited
- closed
- set representation (ie. committee structure) useful in coalitions and networks
- staggered participation (DARCI roles in a hierarchy, above)

Where is the decision made?
- informally (ie. after the meeting, when a few people go out for drinks)
- when everyone is together - allows for fluid decision-making
- in committees empowered by the larger group

Decision-Making Culture - What is yours?
1. What are the systemic power dynamics in place within your process?
2. What kinds of informal power exist (ie. unacknowledged privilenge)?
3. How open is your decision making process?
4. How does your group tackle difficult decisions?
5. Do people implement decision made?
6. When does the decision get made?

Additional Wisdom

The chicken and egg situation of determining what decision-making process to use to establish a decision making process may be resolved by employing the consensus model, and external facilitation can be extremely useful.

Groups may wish to use a caucus to identify what's working and what's not and then have a process to re-engage.

A buddy system can help get new people involved in a group and bring them up to speed.

Having an active listener as a role within meetings can help to deal with power and privilege.

A vibesminder role can monitor the group dynamic during a meeting and ensure everyone has what they need to stay engaged, calling for breaks as necessary and even checking in with those who were unengaged during those breaks.

An internal health committee may be a valuable tool for any decision-making group to perform conflict resolution and monitor the health of the group as an organism.

In coalition or network-building, it is common to make tentative agreements one meeting and confirm at the next, since groups' representatives will often need to check in with their decision-making bodies before fully committing to any decisions on their behalf. Coalitions almost exclusively use consensus as their decision-making structure in order to maintain the greatest level of buy-in and engagement from their membership.

In any group there will be discrepancies in access to resources, time, and pay for the work involved.  Naming those differences and dynamics is good preventative work.

About Tools for Change

A project of OPIRG TorontoEarthroots, and Greenpeace CanadaTools for Change helps you develop skills to advocate for social, economic, and environmental justice. The project began in 2010.

We organize approximately 19 trainings in Toronto each year.  Our workshop topics are chosen through a survey process. Every year, we ask organizations across the Greater Toronto Area what workshops they think we should host, and we organize the most popular choices.

We welcome inquiries from groups interested in partnering with us to host a training or bringing in one of our trainers to lead a workshop for your group.

Contact us: tools.change at
Join our email list to receive workshop announcements and more.
Twitter:  @Tools4ChangeTO

The following resource was shared by one of the workshop participants as a valuable tool related to group decision making:

Download Group Decision Making