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Autonomy vs. group decision making

There’s no right way to make decisions. Instead, it’s about the balance between group-decision making and autonomy that’s important.

Autonomy vs. group decision making
April 16, 2021
Autonomy vs. group decision making

As Learning & Development professionals, we’re often looking for ways in which we can empower our learners. Often, this means entrusting them to make their own decisions about how, when and where they learn. However, in business we do not often give ourselves the same grace when it comes to making decisions. And sometimes we find ourselves debating decision making processes; do we favour group-decision making, or autonomy?

To help you answer this question, I recorded this “Take 5” video for you all:

The truth is, there’s no right way to make decisions. Instead, it’s about the balance between group-decision making and autonomy that’s important. Organisations can’t take decisions themselves, they can’t take actions. Instead, it’s the people within the organisation who takes decisions and actions. People like you – the leaders and decision makers in the business. The decisions and actions you take cascade throughout your organisation and create your businesses culture. And it’s your decisions that can change the culture of your company to make it more autonomous.

Clear outcomes and communication

The first thing to do is make sure you’ve set really clear outcomes, so people know what you expect from them – and where you want them to go. Then, you must step back and let your people make the decision about how they get there. To do that, and to make it successful, you need well-trained people, who are good at what they do and feel confident in making those decisions.

Secondly, you need clear, collaborative, two-way communication between you and your people. One of the most common reasons people don’t take decisions is the fear of failure. They fear that if they make the wrong decision they will get the blame. Instead, people tend to ask their colleagues and peers – so they can share the pain of an incorrect decision if it is made.

Increasing psychological safety

To overcome this challenge, you need to support psychological safety in the workplace and reduce the fear of failure. Instead, you want to educate your people about how they can learn from failure. Neuroscience tells us that it’s the exact same part of our brain that processes fear and curiosity, it’s just down to the level of dopamine. Dopamine is a motivating neurotransmitter and helps us take action. So when that dopamine kicks in, the fear switches to curiosity. Here are some ways you can increase psychological safety in your people:

Reframing questions

Imagine you failed and somebody asked you: “why did you do that?” “who did it?” “Who’s to blame?” How are you going to feel? Fearsome? Criticised? Defensive?

But what if instead, the person asked you “That didn’t work out so well, did it? What can we learn from that?” “How are we going to move forward?” “Let’s make sure we do it differently next time”. You will then likely be in a better mindset after these questions, when compared to the former. And that’s because you’ll be getting curious about how to do better next time. You’re releasing dopamine in the right places, and you’re more likely to be motivated to take action.  

Psychological safety audit

Another way to increase psychological safety in the workplace is asking your people whether they feel psychologically safe. This is something Google – a company known for being autonomous and making bad decisions alongside their great ones – does frequently. In their psychological safety audit they ask their people: “How confident are you that you won’t receive criticism if you admit an error or a failure?” Imagine the difference in your organisation if this question was commonplace in your business.

Teaching your people to make better decisions

Another way in which you can support your people, and boost psychological safety is by teaching them how to make decisions – and how to decide whether they should make the decision on their own or in a group. And the answer to this question relies on a number of factors: your level of expertise, how much extra input you need, the impact of making the decision. But there are certain criteria to ensure that people are more comfortable making these decisions frequently. For example: changing your meeting culture so that people can question and challenge whether everybody needs to be at the entire meeting, or perhaps some people can join for just certain elements.

I hope this blog has been useful to you and I look forward to hearing how you get on with your decisions about autonomy versus group decision making.

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