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Involvement in Decision-Making: What are we REALLY asking for?

February 4, 2022 by Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ

Participative decision-making, which most religious congregations value and attempt to do with multiple groups (i.e. Sisters, Task Forces, Elected Leaders, outside consultants, etc.), can get harried and confusing. The question often becomes, “Who really will make the final decision?” Often, what each group assumes will happen with the feedback they solicit from the members is at odds with what the Sisters in general assume will happen with the input they offer.

If there is not clarity on each group’s part about where the final decision will rest, the Sisters can develop a certain cynicism. This is reflected in an attitude of “Why should I bother? They (whoever they might be) have already made up their minds.”

In his work advising leaders on how to build a shared vision within their organizations, Bryan Smith (internationally recognized author, speaker, and consultant on leadership development) notes that there are five different and valid strategies to seek and use information gathered from members at large. Think of them as being on a continuum that looks something like this:

Tell Sell Test Consult --------------------------------------Co-Create

Final Decision made by person(s)                      Final decision made by Group
requesting the feedback.

Reflecting on how most women’s religious congregations operate today, I propose that we re-name “Co-Create” “Consensus Decision”. I would also add one more strategy that reflects that some decisions in religious congregations are made by vote. The revised continuum would contain six strategies and would include “Vote” after “Consensus Decision”.

Tell Sell Test Consult --------------------------Consensus Decision Vote

Knowing the difference between each strategy may help leaders and committees choose how best to engage their members in a decision-making process. Let’s take a look at each strategy.

Tell-- In some situations, the decision about a complex problem or situation needs to be made and communicated to the members. Leaders (or a committee) must clearly and honestly tell the members what was decided and why the decision was made, if possible. While this can seem authoritarian, it is sometimes a necessary strategy given the sensitivity, speed, complexity, or expertise often needed to make an effective decision.

Sell-- When a committee or a leadership team believes they have the right solution, or has come to a decision and now want member “buy-in”, Smith says what actually happens is an attempt to “enroll” members in that decision. This is not a form of manipulation. When “selling” an idea or decision, the leaders or committee share(s) their enthusiasm for the benefits they hope this decision will offer and provide enough information about the issue that the members can track how this decision came to be. A committee or leaders also express the hope that others see what they saw and will support the decision.

Test-- Sometimes a Leadership Team or a Committee will present a decision they have made to members by saying something like, “This is the decision we are on the verge of making, for these reasons . . . We think it is the best decision, but want to test it with you first. We need to hear the plusses and minuses of this decision as you see them.” The leaders, or the committee, assure(s) the members that they will consider this feedback. In doing so, the leaders, to the best of their ability, refine or perhaps even alter some aspects of the decision as a result. Again, the members understand that the decision being presented is likely to move ahead, but with as many of their suggestions as possible.

Consult-- A Leadership Team or Committee, before they finalize a decision, will sometimes share the complexities of the situation, the research they have done, and the options available. They will invite feedback while being clear that the final decision will rest with the committee, or the leadership team. Consulting is a much more open-ended and time-consuming strategy than the first three, but can increase buy-in by offering a deeper kind of member involvement. This is a good strategy as long as the leader(s) or committee members make it clear to the members that while their recommendations will be carefully considered, the leaders or the committee will make the final decision.

The four strategies described to this point share that the final decision remains with the leader(s) or the appointed committee, etc. The next two strategies create avenues for a final decision to be made by the congregation-at-large, or those among it who have chosen to be part of the decision-making process.

Consensus-- While definitions of consensus abound, I would like to suggest that the hallmark of this strategy is really consensus seeking, which is an attitude of heart and mind towards decision making rather than a tool. When a group chooses to make a decision by consensus, participants offer their thoughts and listen for the group’s wisdom, often allowing their personal opinion to be shaped and altered by the quality of listening that takes place. The focus in consensus is the common good, not an individual’s idea or preference. Seeking an emerging consensus is about the members’ ability to support the decision that is emerging, even if they do not necessarily agree with it. While it rarely happens, in a real consensus seeking process, individual participants retain the option to block a decision.

Vote-- While we are probably the most familiar with this strategy, if it is preceded by a consensus seeking process, it too can have the feel of a collaborative approach to decision making.

The critical insight from Smith that can be applied here is that no matter the labels, the difference lies in who will make the final decision and that this distinction be made clear in some way from the outset of seeking the members’ opinions. Simply stated, once the requested feedback has been gathered, how will the leaders or the committee use it?

Why is this important? In our experience, many religious congregations prefer to use words like “consult” and “consensus” when inviting the participation of their members. This is most problematic when in reality a decision has already been made or is very nearly finalized.

We can recount experience after experience where either the leaders or the committee have said—with no duplicitous intent—“I know we have already made this decision, but we want to run it by the Sisters first, so they feel like they have a voice in this.” Our typical response is to say, “Take out a piece of paper and draw a continuum on it. To the left, print the word ‘Tell’. And at the far left, write the word, ‘Vote’.”

Sometimes leaders or committees fudge on language because they don’t want to appear “top down” or more often, genuinely want the Sisters to “feel involved”. When this is the case and a decision has already been made, the members can feel duped about the degree of influence or impact they will in reality have.

I believe there is a time and place for each of these six strategies for decision-making, including the first four in which a final decision will not be made by the members-at-large. If a decision has already been made (generally, for very good reasons), the most honest approach is to find the best way to Tell the members about it. If you have made a decision that you really hope the Sisters will understand and support, use language to Sell it to them. And if you are almost, but not quite ready to finalize a decision, and want to see if the rest of the congregation sees the same benefits you do, Test it with them before you make the final decision.

Perhaps Consult is the word most often used but is the strategy least well understood. Smith’s framework suggests that every time you invite the participation of and/or feedback from members, you are not necessarily consulting with them. Often, you are using one of the first three strategies (Tell, Sell, or Test). Consultation lays out all of the information gathered either by the leaders or the committee and, indicating that the final decision will be made by the leaders or the committee, invites members to delve into the complexities of the issue and offer their best thinking to the decision-makers.

Finally, I believe that trust building and involvement in the creation of a shared vision about a decision is best achieved by identifying the stage you are at in the decision-making process before inviting feedback from the Sisters. Use the language in your invitation that corresponds to that strategy. If a decision has been made, or is nearly made, then choose one of the first four strategies. If you honestly intend to involve members from the beginning, then a choice of one of the last two strategies is in order.

For a reference point, see “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”, co-authored by Bryan Smith.

Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ is a facilities & engagement specialist with Hoffman. Sr. Nancy has 28 years of experience in organizational consulting/facilitation. Sr. Nancy was elected President of the newly formed Congregation of St. Joseph (the union formed in 2007 by the coming together of seven independent CSSJ congregations). She served in that capacity for 12 years, and while in that role, she facilitated the congregation’s movement regarding its buildings and properties across six states.

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