By Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D.

I’m a levels fanatic. I think most problems boil down to a debate about which level of analysis to use, and one of my favorite examples comes up around teamwork.

Often decisions are delegated to teams without instructions for making those decisions. As a result, a bunch of people find themselves in a room under pressure to deliver a decision, but facing a “levels ambiguity” regarding the first order of business:

To decide? Or to decide how to decide?

“Um, well I suppose we should get right to it then . . . ”

“Excuse me, but shouldn’t we talk about our process a little first?”

On the first level you’ve got the decision you’ve been told to make. But up a level lurks the decision about how to make that decision. In fact, the levels go up from there into a virtual Tower of Babel: If you don’t yet have a decision-making process and decide you need one, then what process do you use to decide how to decide how to decide?

If you think this is absurd, you’re right, but it’s also very real. Consider a perfectly clear and commonplace comment like “Hmmm. . . . I wonder where you get the authority to tell us how we’ll make this decision.” That’s a third-floor comment. It’s made at the level of deciding how to decide how to decide.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

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The Tower of Babel is daunting, and people who consider themselves practical and down-to-earth often try to keep the discussion on the ground floor saying things like this:

“Come on, people. We don’t have a lot of time. Let’s just make this decision and get on with it.”

Notice that this comment isn’t made on the ground floor; it’s actually up a level. In effect, it says, “We should make the decision by some unspecified process that I happen to like,” which can make teammates a little nervous.

That nervousness reveals another dimension of the levels ambiguity. Deciding versus deciding how to decide. That’s one way to look at the levels involved. Another way is to look at the relationship between (on one level) what’s in the individual’s best interest and (one level up) what’s in the group’s best interest.

Think of it as the tension between the roles of advocate and judge. Advocates argue for what they want; judges decide what’s best for everyone. The roles are best kept apart or else you’ve got the foxes guarding the henhouse-advocates pretending to be judicially unbiased:

“Excuse me, folks, but wouldn’t the most prudent and equitable decision process be for me to evaluate everyone’s suggestions, write up a final report, and copy you in on what I send to the boss?”

Confusing the roles can also cause the reverse problem-not wanting to be overbearing, some advocates hold back on behalf of group process (hens replacing the wolves?), much to the group’s ultimate disadvantage:

“Look, I’m sorry. Yes, I thought it was a bad idea when it was floated in the meeting, but I didn’t want to impose my will on everyone. For the sake of consensus I didn’t speak up.”

Confusing the roles, however, is precisely what happens in a team with no decision-making process. Who’s advocate and who’s judge? Well, we are, whatever that means.

But these levels problems don’t just arise with floundering teams. They’re a challenge we face in all group decisions. Making good decisions entails taking into consideration the strong opinions of individuals. That’s democracy. But it also entails ultimately reaching some kind of agreement about what’s right for the group overall. That’s unity. Both are virtues. Both have their place, but it’s hard to know exactly which places these are when the process for making the decision isn’t spelled out in advance.

And it’s not just group decision making, either. These same issues arise when you sit down to make a decision alone. It’s the fundamental tension between deciding and decided.

Deciding calls for receptivity, openness to the variety of positions available. In contrast, being decided calls for closure, a focus on the one approach that is best overall, all things considered, and then ignoring other options so as to follow through on your decision. Deciding is yin. Decided is yang. These incompatible states are necessary to all decision-making process. It’s just hard to know where to draw the wavy line between them.

Recognizing that both deciding and decided have their crucial but different places in decision making frames the issue in productive ways. I call it the spin-doctor’s Hippocratic oath: When deciding, be open. Unspin. Use the power of neutral thinking. Weigh all the options equally. When you’ve decided, be closed. Spin assertively. Use the power of positive thinking to promote hope and faith in your chosen option, talking about how it’s right and all the other options are wrong.

When deciding, a group should be receptive and uncertain. When decided, the group should be unreceptive and certain. This applies to judges as well. For the sake of the group consider the case open-mindedly, but once you’ve made your decision, close your mind.

Notice that for an individual within a group-in other words, for an advocate, the rule is reversed. When the group is deciding, that’s when you should make your case assertively. For the best outcome, the group needs all its members, including you, to weigh in at full force. But once the group has decided, it’s best to become receptive and go along with the decision. It really takes changing gears, as witnessed by the attempts of Giuliani or Clinton to crush their opponents in the primaries and then concede and endorse their opponents (somewhat) enthusiastically in the general elections.

This levels analysis can start to feel like a hall of mirrors, so let me summarize. For the group overall, the deciding phase calls for receptivity and openness, but for the individual participants the deciding phase is the time for the most assertive advocacy, for making the strongest case. In the decided phase, the group needs to have closed in on a decision and committed to it unwaveringly, and that decided state calls for receptivity among participants who favored other approaches but now need to go along to get along.

That’s why a team faces a hall of broken and fogged-up mirrors whenever it is sent off without a process. The potential is high that either pushy individuals will force imprudent decisions or that accommodating individuals will surrender to groupthink.

Leaders and delegators should keep this in mind. Either provide a formal process for the team’s decision making, assign responsibility for doing so to one person, or face the very real prospect that though the team may get off the ground it will end up stuck between floors.