The societal tragedies of not deciding

04 Aug 2019  John  5 mins read.

As I’m writing this article, my news feeds are ablaze with stories about yet another mass shooting tragedy in the United States.

This one hits very close to home because I have family and close friends in the area ( El Paso Texas ) … but otherwise there’s nothing really special about this shooting compared to others.

The shooter had a history of participating in extremist forums, they’d posted their intent to do harm online, they’d legally purchased guns capable of firing hundreds of rounds per minute and hundreds of rounds of ammunition… all actions that (in my opinion) should have resulted in increased surveillance of their movements.

No such surveillance took place because the American people have not decided what to do about mass shootings. They’ve not reached consensus decisions about any aspect of the problem, except perhaps to agree to express sadness after these incidents occur.

The problem is pervasive and the need to respond is urgent, so why haven’t decisions been reached?

What causes Decision Deadlocks?

For many years my job has revolved around helping groups reach decisions, so I have dealt with “deadlocked” decision making groups more times than I can remember. Every group is different, but I have seen a lot of commonalities in why deadlocks happen. I’d like to review those common factors with you in the hopes that we can all start avoiding them.

#1: Diversity of Priorities

When making decisions as a group, we have to recognize that the members of the group are never identical to each other.

The American society is made up of very diverse members with very different backgrounds, very different perspectives and very different priorities.

Those differences quickly lead to deadlocked decisions unless everyone in the group is aware of them.

Consider a simple decision of where to go to lunch: There are two options. The first is “The Steak Place” and the second is “The Salad Place”.

Making a decision should be easy - List the Pros and Cons of each option and then go with the option that has the most Pros and the fewest Cons. This approach works fine for individuals and for very homogenous groups, but quickly breaks down when a group is diverse.

The Pros for folks on the Paleo Diet are going to be Cons for Vegans, and visa-versa.

Without understanding the priorities of the individual group members, we often ensure deadlocks by limiting choices to options that are unacceptable to factions within the group.

When we understand the priorities of the individuals, we improve our ability to discover options that are acceptable to all - these options might not accomplish much, but they certainly accomplish more than deadlocks.

#2: Incentives for Deadlocks

When making decisions as a group, we have to recognize that some members may be incentivised to block any decision.

The American economy is in large part driven by corporate interests. Decisions made by the society can have major impacts on “the bottom line” of companies that sell products to American consumers and on companies that export products to other countries. Decisions may improve the profitability of a company, or they may hurt the profitability of a company, or in very rare cases they may have no impact at all.

To avoid uncertainty, many companies use their influence to maintain the status quo…

Better the devil that you know than the devil you don’t.

Directly or indirectly, some group members will be incentivized to “decide not to decide”. Recognizing that this is happening may not change this behavior, but it can lessen its impact on the group’s ability to reach consensus on something.

What can we do to avoid Decision Deadlocks?

As a decision coach, my best advice for improving the odds of reaching consensus decisions is to adopt a process for decision making and to apply that process to every decision that involves others. I built Trules to make this easier, but the point is to find a process that works for your group and use it.

When we “use our gut” to make decisions, we are surrendering to unconscious bias and pre-programmed responses. There are volumes of studies on how we decide, and it’s scary how little we realize why we make the decisions that we do.

Consciously following a decision making process won’t defeat your “gut instincts”, but it will help you tame them a bit.

There’s no need for an elaborate process, but be sure to cover the basics:

  • Ensure that everyone in the group understands why a decision is necessary.
  • Ensure that the group is aware of any constraints or deadlines, and of any requirements that the decision should enable.
  • Make note of everyone’s priorities: What do they want the decision to produce?
  • Identify the “reasonable” options to choose from (options aren’t reasonable it they’re dead-on-arrival to some group members).
  • Gather the information necessary to properly evaluate each option.
  • Deliberate, vote, adjust until consensus on something is reached.

What does this advice have to do with Societal Decisions?

Admittedly, as groups increase in size the odds of decision deadlock increase exponentially. While it may be possible in small groups to ensure that everyone is informed and understands each other’s perspectives, in a society with 300+ million people that just isn’t going to happen.

To reduce Societal Decision Deadlocks, we’re going to have to start small. We’re not going to reach societal consensus on the big decisions until we’ve rekindled our desire to reach consensus.

Consensus feels good, and that feeling can be addictive.

Starting small means gathering in small groups and tackling issues that are meaningful to that group. Even in the smallest of groups you will uncover wildly different perspectives and priorities, and you’ll have to work through those to reach consensus.

That work within your small groups will be worth it. You’ll learn to spot and deal with obstacles, and it will get easier. As you develop those skills, you’ll be better able to apply them to larger groups…

If enough of us develop these skills, our society will get better at reaching decisions… I hope.

When we begin to experience the benefits of consensus on small things, we’ll begin to want to reach consensus on the larger things - and that’s the way out of this mess.

John Reynolds
John Reynolds

John is the creator of Trules.