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Cornell study shows managers when to use consensus decision-making , and when it won't work

When small groups of workers gather to make decisions, all of them want a chance to share their opinions, and that's not a bad idea, says Randall Peterson, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Yet letting all group members have as much "air time" as they want can backfire, both for the decision-making process and the group's leader, according to a new study by Peterson, "Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? The Limits of Voice for Improving Satisfaction with Leaders," published in the February 1999 issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology. The study suggests ways that all small groups, from business meetings to family dinner-table conferences, can function more efficiently.

When members of small groups have the opportunity to express their opinions, they are more likely to feel the decision-making process is fair. And they are more likely to support ultimate decisions made by leaders or authorities. Yet as anyone who has led a business meeting knows, a free-speaking environment can stymie the decision-making process.

Peterson's research aimed to identify some of the situations in which small group "free speech" is best reined in by leaders. His experiment created small decision-making groups in which group leaders manipulated opportunities for members to speak out, as well as the way the groups arrived at a decision.

The lessons for leaders lie in the dynamics of the groups in which members decided by consensus. Peterson introduced a confederate to these groups, who insisted on decisions that were fundamentally different from those embraced by other members. When the maverick brought the group to a stalemate, members' satisfaction with the decision-making process declined significantly, even though every member was given full voice in the proceedings.

Leaders bore the brunt of the groups' displeasure. Members blamed them for not intervening to stop the maverick from dominating the discussion. They also disliked the mavericks in general, even when they weren't holding the groups hostage.

Consensus decision making has its place, since it results in greater satisfaction and acceptance among group members. But it doesn't work when members have fundamental differences, Peterson says. The challenge for leaders is to determine when simple conflicts can be resolved through discussion, or when core differences are present.

"Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? The Limits of Voice for Improving Satisfaction with Leaders" is one of a number of studies on leadership and small group dynamics by Randall Peterson of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell. For more information, contact Shannon Dortch, the Johnson School's communications and media relations officer at (607) 255-6417; e-mail


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