Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy

In the first part of this blog (A model for making group decisions) I talked about the rational decision making model and how it is the basis of making a decision. Part of that model is gaining agreement amongst a group on an option out of a set of options which becomes the decision. This part is about different ways of gaining agreement and when to use each.

This model is a variant of the Vroom-Jago (1)  contingency model in situational leadership theory first developed in 1973 and then refined in 1988. My take on it changes the language here and there to alter some of the emphasis and changes the decision tree a little.

This model defines a set of decision making models ranging from autocratic to democratic and then helps you choose which is appropriate for different situations.

Decision characteristics

This model applies to decisions involving a group that have an “owner”. The owner is the person who needs the objective decided on. The owner could be the customer, a representative, the group as a whole or the team leader. An important consideration when using this model, as discussed in part 1 is knowing who the owner is and realising that it may well be different for the different decisions the group has to make.

For each type of decision that needs to be made by a group:

  1. Identify the owner
  2. Clarify the objective
  3. Identify the team/group involved

Decision making models

The following decision making models are appropriate for group decisions:

  • Autocratic 1 (A1) – The decision owner makes the decision based on the information available.
  • Autocratic 2 (A2) – The decision owner requests information from the team (not explaining the situation or why they want information) and then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 1 (C1) – The decision owner explains the situation to individual members (socialising and pre-integrating the decision) but does not convene them as a group, then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 2 (C2) – The group discusses the situation and then offers ideas and suggestions. The decision owner then takes the decision.
  • Group 2 (G2) – The whole group makes the decision with the owner acting more as a facilitator. Reaching this discussion can be discussion leading to emergent consensus, planning poker style or explicit voting solutions.

I don’t know why there isn’t a “Group 1″… maybe we should ask Vroom.

Which one to use

These options range from autocratic to democratic. One of the interesting things is that sometimes leaders want to be democratic but don’t really need to be or are not expected to be. This can lead to a conflict in expectation of approach. A leader may wish to be inclusive and democratic but their team may just wish they’d make a decision once in a while!

The alternative also causes conflict where a group expects their opinions to be heard and taken into account but the owner ignores their voices and makes autocratic decisions. This will create distance between the owner/leader and the group/team making the team feel undervalued.

Having understood the decision characteristics and the different decision making models you can then select one by using the following decision tree to identify the most appropriate model.

Each horizontal numerical bar indicates a question for the decision owner. Answer that question as honestly as possible, in terms of how relevant it is to making a good decision then move to the next part of the tree (sometimes skipping a question bar) and see which question you should answer next. Pretty quickly you’ll arrive at a circular blob with the short name of one of the options described above. I’ve written up some case studies to help explain by example.

  1. Are the stakeholders known, available and engaged?
    • Are the people who will be materially affected by the decision identified, are they available to join in the decision making and engaged in the team to assist in making a decision?
  2. Is a high quality decision/solution important?
    • Is this a case where lots of alternate options can be used and it doesn’t really matter which is selected? If so then answer “no”.
  3. As the owner do you have enough information available to make a gooddecision?
    • If the owner is unsure, or wants to involve other opinions then answer “no”
  4. Is the problem well understood and does it have well known standard solutions that apply in this context?
    • Is it’s a standard problem with a standard (or set of standard) solutions that will work in the current context then answer “yes”
  5. Do the members of the team or group have to accept this decision for it to work?
  6. If you (the owner) make the decision yourself will the group accept it?
    • Answer this honestly, being in an organisational structure that means the group should accept it isn’t good enough. This question is about the real, honest dynamic between the owner and the group. This is affected by rapport.
  7. Are the group members aligned with the same motives and goals as you the decision owner?
    • If the other members of the group have a different mission, agenda or motives then answer “no”
  8. Is disagreement likely among group members in reaching a decision?

What if you don’t want to do this model? What if your stakeholders object?

So if you’ve followed the decision tree and it says you should use Autocratic 2 (full autocracy) when you were hoping for Group 2 (full democracy) what should you do? This model is a bit like flipping a coin to decide something. The important thing is not which side of the coin comes up but how that decision makes you feel. If this process highlights to you what you were really hoping for then you’ve learned something. However it’s worth looking at the decision tree and seeing why you ended up where you did, and if other’s in the group would expect the same thing.

To explore this a little I’ve described three real examples here: Decision making case studies – please feel free to add your own. I’ve quickly written:

  • Agile team customer sprint demo and assessment
  • Process Improvement Team way of working decision
  • Process Improvement Team scope agreement

The important part of this process is to make you, your team and your stakeholders consider the types of decisions they need to make, and how they should make different types of decisions. I recommend that as part of a team charter a team describes the types of decision it will make and how it will make them. That gives stakeholders, customers and other teams the opportunity to get involved and question the decision making dynamics if necessary.

Decision making as a team building exercise

During the formation (or reinvention) of a team you can do the following exercise:

  1. Brainstorm the decisions the group makes. Categorise them into a few groups such as:
    • Achieving team buy-in to approach and activities
    • Timebox assessment, regular reflect and adapt
    • Balancing scope, cost, resources, time
  2. For each one establish a good definition of an example decision and it’s owner.
  3. Each team member then puts themselves in the position of the owner (this is even better if the owner is in the room and is included) and privately follows the decision tree answering truly honestly
  4. Each team member then shows the resulting decision making option they’ve chosen
  5. Consensus or conflict is then discussed. Outliers on the scale should be discussed first.

This simple exercise will get the team to understand each others motivations and approaches to problem solving as well as open their eyes to some of this stuff from a different perspective. Finally unknown conflicts in terms of decision making way well emerge where people had different assumptions of group input vs. directive management allowing them to be solved practically before a real personal conflict occurs.

To see how I apply this stuff to self-organising teams see: What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!


Try applying this approach to personal relationships and decision making, not all of it will apply but it’s interesting to see where you act collaboratively with a partner vs. when you make an autocratic decision (or expect them to) and what the justification is for such a perspective.  A misunderstanding between assumed decision making models is one of the underlying causes of many personal conflict situations, you can avoid these by understanding them.

Spend some time understanding how and why you make decisions both personally and professionally and you’ll reap some great rewards.

This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.


  • Vroom, Victor H.; Yetton, Phillip W. (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Vroom, Victor H.; Jago, Arthur G. (1988). The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

8 responses to “How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy

  1. Pingback: A model for making group decisions « The Mac Daddy

  2. Pingback: Decision making case studies « The Mac Daddy

  3. Pingback: Linguistics of business change: Holistic communication, ethics and morals « The Mac Daddy

  4. Stephanie Bennis April 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    So much about successful decision making comes down to good communication – and that’s exactly what you hit upon here. Really good advice for something I find myself struggling with. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Pingback: What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation! « Mike MacDonagh's Blog

  6. bradapp May 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    This information looks similar to Ellen Gottesdiener’s “Decide How to Decide” pattern from 2001
    (See http://www.ebgconsulting.com/Pubs/Articles/DecideHowToDecide-Gottesdiener.pdf )

    • mikemacd May 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Brad, thanks for the link I’d not seen that article before, it’s a good addition to the reference material. We’re broadly making the same point although I’m putting a little more emphasis on how to choose a model whereas the article puts more emphasis on the characteristics of the different models.

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