Decision making in groups is sometimes examined separately as process and outcome. Process refers to the interactions among individuals that lead to the choice of a particular course of action. An outcome is the consequence of that choice. Separating process and outcome is convenient because it helps explain that a good decision making processes does not guarantee a good outcome, and that a good outcome does not presuppose a good process. Thus, for example, managers interested in good decision making are encouraged to put good decision making processes in place. Although these good decision making processes do not guarantee good outcomes, they can tip the balance of chance in favor of good outcomes.

A critical aspect for decision making groups is the ability to converge on a choice.

Politics is one approach to making decisions in groups. This process revolves around the relative power or ability to influence of the individuals in the group. Some relevant ideas include coalitions among participants as well as influence and persuasion. The use of politics is often judged negatively, but it is a useful way to approach problems when preferences among actors are in conflict, when dependencies exist that cannot be avoided, when there are no super-ordinate authorities, and when the technical or scientific merit of the options is ambiguous.

In addition different processes to make decisions, groups can also have different decision rules. A decision rule is the approach used by a group to mark the choice that is made.

  1. Unanimity is commonly used by juries in criminal trials in the United States. Unanimity requires everyone to agree on a given course of action, and thus imposes a high bar for action.
  2. Majority requires support from more than 50% of the members of the group. Thus, the bar for action is lower than with unanimity, but it can create a group of "losers" in the process.
  3. Consensus decision-making tries to avoid "winners" and "losers". Consensus requires that a majority approve a given course of action, but that the minority agree to go along with the course of action. In other words, if the minority opposes the course of action, consensus requires that the course of action be modified to remove objectionable features.
  4. Sub-committee involves assigning responsibility for evaluation of a decision to a sub-set of a larger group, which then comes back to the larger group with recommendations for action. Using a sub-committee is more common in larger governance groups, such as a legislature. Sometimes a sub-committee includes those individuals most affected by a decision, although at other times it is useful for the larger group to have a sub-committee that involves more neutral participants.

Less desirable group decision rules are:

  1. Plurality, where the largest block in a group decides, even if it falls short of a majority.
  2. Dictatorship, where one individual (typically with the greatest power) determines the course of action.

Plurality and dictatorship are less desirable as decision rules because they do not require the involvement of the broader group to determine a choice. Thus, they do not engender commitment to the course of action chosen. An absence of commitment from individuals in the group can be problematic during the implementation phase of a decision.

There are no perfect decision making rules. Depending on how the rules are implemented in practice and the situation, all of these can lead to situations where either no decision is made, or to situations where decisions made are inconsistent with one another over time.


The ethical principles of decision making vary considerably. Some common choices of principles and the methods which seem to match them include:

  1. the most powerful person decides - method: dictatorship
  2. everyone participates in a certain class of meta-decisions
    • method: parliamentary democracy
  3. everyone participates in every decision - direct democracy, consensus decision making