Modes of Decision-Making

Last updated: October 28, 2021
Estimated reading time: 3 min


To foster greater participation, trust, and transparency on teams, we recommend leaders develop a shared vocabulary about modes of decision-making. Different from a decision-making process (e.g., consensus, majority vote, individual makes the call, etc.), your mode describes the type of input you’re seeking from a person or group. Essentially, it tells people how you’ll engage with suggestions.

The spectrum below* offers one framework to share within teams. In each mode, you’re aiming to engage participants, especially those closest to the work or most impacted by a decision.

Graphic illustrating a decision-making spectrum with five blue circles and a two-way arrow. From left to right, the circles read: joint, consult, test, persuade, tell.

*We adapted this from a similar framework created by Monitor Consulting.

Why mode matters

The shared vocabulary helps participants understand “the ask” and prevents confusion about how decisions will be made. For example, a project manager might use the gradient above to clarify the purpose of a meeting: “We are viewing this as a joint decision. We’ll review the three options today, take questions, and vote using our normal process.” Later in the project, the same manager might meet with the team in a different mode: “To be transparent, I’m in test mode—I’ve thought about XYZ and am leaning toward this path, and I want to see whether you think it’s the right course before I decide. Is there anything else I should consider?”

Being clear about your mode is a key step in fair process decision-making.

For project leaders and managers, getting clear about your mode is a choice point. When staff routinely get asked for input that’s discounted or ignored, they are less likely to feel valued and included, which leads to disengagement—an experience that is all-too-often the norm for staff with marginalized identities or less power. When you’re transparent about your decision mode, it sets expectations and shows you respect people’s time, insight, and energy. Naming your mode is also a good time to reflect on the input you seek, from whom, and how often. Ask yourself:

  • Which mode reflects how I will make this decision?
  • Who will be impacted by this decision? Are there patterns along lines of race, gender, or other identities I need to be mindful of?
  • Where can I build in more authentic collaboration or seek out new perspectives that are frequently left out?
  • How often am I showing up in tell or persuade mode? What’s holding me back from seeking more participation in decisions?

Deciding which mode to use

Mode Joint Consult Test Persuade Tell
When… The team is the decision-maker and will collaborate to come to agreement; often looks like voting or using a consent/consensus process The decision-maker(s) are seeking input on a specific decision or option and will consider new ideas or feedback to shape the final outcome; this could look like brainstorming or weighing a few concrete options Decision-maker(s) have a concept or draft and want to see how it works, lands, or holds up for different audiences Decision-maker(s) want to build buy-in and have already done work to get here; concerns raised will inform improvements (and, in some rare cases, might change the decision) The decision is made. Decision-maker(s) are sharing information, including context or rationale, to promote understanding; questions and input will aid implementation
Questions you can ask
  • Which path do you vote for?
  • What do you think we should do?
  • If you would not vote for X path, what would it take to get to “yes”?
  • Your input will really shape our next step on X and Y. What ideas do you have?
  • What could make this even better?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What have you seen work/not work?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you do?
  • One option we’re considering is A. How does this idea land on you? What parts of that plan do you have concerns about?
  • What could you imagine going wrong with how we’re approaching this?
  • What’s an outcome you absolutely want to avoid?
  • What would it take to implement this well?
  • What questions do you still want clarified?
  • What would make you really excited about this path or proposal?
  • Do you have any questions about how we are moving forward?
  • Do you need anything from me to get this going?
  • What do you need from me in order to convey all of this to your team?
  • Can you sum up your understanding of where we’re headed?

Whether you’re in a group working toward consensus, a director gathering input to inform a decision, or a project leader building buy-in for a solution to a problem, transparency about decision modes combined with openness to feedback can help build the kind of authentic engagement that leads to better outcomes.

Find additional resources on decision-making:

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