Decision Making

Since the day Sandra Marshall became a supervisor at Fairchild Medical Center, she has been concerned about the many tough decisions she has had to make. Just this morning, for example, one of her employees, named Terrence, requested a change in the vacation schedule. He had received a last-minute invitation to go on a fishing trip as his cousin’s guest. Terrence considered this “the chance of a lifetime.” The problem is that Sandra had already approved vacations for three other members of the department during the same week. Even with Terrence on hand, the maintenance department would be operating with a skeleton crew.

One of the primary factors that distinguish supervisors from operating employees is the types of decisions that they must make. Supervisors must be concerned with how their decisions might affect their employees and the organization. Operating employees, in contrast, are primarily concerned with how decisions affect them individually.

The quality of the decisions that a supervisor makes is the measure of his or her effectiveness. In fact, a supervisor’s skill in making decisions is often a key factor considered in his or her evaluations, promotions, raises, and other rewards. A supervisor’s decision-making ability will ultimately contribute to the success or failure of the organization.

Decision Making and Supervision

Supervisors must make decisions whenever they perform any of the four management functions:

  • Planning: Supervisor must decide which objectives to seek, which policies to establish, and which rules and regulations to institute.
  • Organizing: Supervisors must determine how to delegate authority and how duties and responsibilities should be grouped.
  • Leading: As leaders, supervisors must decide how best to communicate with and motivate employees.
  • Controlling: Supervisors must compare results with plans and take corrective actions to achieve desired goals.

Decision making is therefore at the center of the supervisor’s job. Supervisors must continually decide what is to be done, who is to do it, and how, when, and where it is to be done. Although these decisions may appear to be separate, they are often interrelated. Each decision is affected by, and builds upon, previous ones.

Supervisory decisions are often classified as being programmed or non-programmed, with many decisions falling somewhere between these two extremes:

  • Programmed decisions produce solutions to repetitive, well-structured, and routine problems. The term programmed is used in the same sense that it is used in computer programming: there is a specific procedure, or program, that can be applied to the problem at hand. Many daily problems that confront supervisors are programmed, and therefore, they are not difficult to solve because a more or less “set” answer is available. Usually, the organization has already developed fixed procedures and rules to deal with these problems. Supervisors can delegate these kinds of decisions to employees and be confident that the decisions will be made in an acceptable and timely manner.
  • Non-programmed decisions are made when supervisors are confronted with new, unusual, or unstructured problems that are unlikely to recur. They are often caused by changing situations or unusual circumstances. Non-programmed decisions tend to be more important, demanding, and strategic than programmed decisions. There are no pat answers or guidelines for making these decisions. Supervisors are called on to use intelligence, good judgment, intuition, and creativity in attempting to solve these problems. They should apply a decision-making process that is consistent and logical, but also adaptable.

The Decision-Making Process

In making non-programmed managerial decisions, supervisors should follow six steps in their decision-making process:

  • Define the problem
  • Analyze the problem using available information
  • Establish decision criteria—the factors that will be used to evaluate alternatives
  • Develop alternative solutions after thorough analysis
  • Evaluate the alternatives carefully and select the “best” solution—the most feasible under the circumstances
  • Follow up and appraise the consequences of the decision

Group Decision Making

Decisions in organizations are increasingly being made by groups rather than by individuals. There seem to be at least two primary reasons for this. First, a group is likely to develop more and better alternatives than a single person—in other words: two heads are better than one. Second, organizations are relying less on the historical idea that departments should be separate and independent decision units. To produce the best ideas and to improve their implementation, organizations are increasingly turning to teams that cut across traditional departmental lines. This requires the use of group decision-making techniques.

Advantages of Group Decision Making

Individual and group decisions each have their own set of strengths. Neither is ideal for all situations. Let’s begin, therefore, by reviewing the advantages that group decision makers have over individuals.

  • More complete information. A group brings a range of experience and diverse perspectives to the decision-making process that an individual, acting alone, cannot.
  • More alternatives. Because groups have a greater quantity and diversity of information, they can identify more alternatives than could an individual.
  • Acceptance of solution. Many decisions fail because people do not accept the solution. If the people who will implement or be affected by a certain decision could participate in the decision-making process, they would be more likely to accept the decision and to encourage others to accept it.
  • Legitimacy. The group decision-making process is consistent with democratic ideals and, as a result, may be perceived as more legitimate than decision making by a single person.

Disadvantages of Group Decision Making

If groups are so good, then where did the phrase “A camel is a racehorse put together by a committee” originate? The answer, of course, is that group decisions also have drawbacks. Some of the major disadvantages of group decision making are:

  • Time consumption. It takes time to assemble a group. In addition, the interaction that takes place once the group is in place is frequently inefficient. The result is that a group almost always takes more time to make a decision than would an individual acting alone.
  • Minority domination. Members of a group are never perfectly equal. They may differ in terms of rank in the organization, experience, knowledge about the problem, influence with other members, verbal skills, assertiveness, and other factors. This creates the opportunity for one or more members to use their advantages to dominate others and impose undue influence on the final decision.
  • Pressures to conform. There are social pressures in groups. The desire of group members to be accepted and to be viewed as assets to the group can suppress any overt disagreement and encourage a conformity of viewpoints. This tendency of group members to withhold their individual views in order to appear to be in agreement is called groupthink.
  • Ambiguous responsibility. Group members share responsibility for making decisions, but no one person is actually responsible for the final outcome. In an individual decision, it is clear who is responsible, but in a group decision, the responsibility of any single member is diluted.

When to Use Group Decision Making

In making decisions, when are groups better than individuals, and vice versa? That depends on what you mean by “better.” Let’s look at four criteria frequently associated with good decisions: accuracy, speed, creativity, and acceptance.

  • Accuracy: The evidence indicates that, on average, groups make more accurate decisions than individuals. This does not mean, of course, that every group outperforms every individual. Rather, group decisions have been found to be more effective than those of the average member of the group, but they are seldom as good as those of the best group member.
  • Speed: Individual decision makers are faster than groups. Group-decision processes are characterized by give and take, which consumes time.
  • Creativity: Groups tend to do better than individuals in reaching creative decisions. This requires that groups must avoid groupthink, however. They must encourage doubts about the group’s shared views and challenges to favored arguments; they must avoid an excessive desire to give an appearance of consensus; and they must not assume that silence or abstention by members is a “yes” vote.
  • Acceptance: As noted previously, because group decisions are made using input from more people, they are likely to result in solutions that more people will accept.

It appears that groups, rather than individuals, are better suited for making non-programmed decisions (new or unusual problems that are unlikely to recur). These decisions are so important that they are frequently made by top management and, to a somewhat lesser extent, by middle managers; however, they are likely to be better when a pool of talent is used to make them. In terms of the steps of the decision-making process, the following points concerning groups making non-programmed decisions are useful to remember:

  • In establishing goals and objectives, groups probably are superior to individuals because of the greater amount of knowledge available to groups.
  • In identifying causes and developing alternative solutions, the individual efforts of group members will ensure a broad search using expertise from the various functional areas of the organizations.
  • In evaluating alternative solutions, the collective judgment of the group, with its wider range of viewpoints, seems superior to that of the individual decision maker.
  • In solution selection, it has been shown that group interaction and the achievement of consensus usually results in the acceptance of more risk than would be attempted by an individual decision maker. In any event, the group decision is more likely to be accepted as a result of the participation of those affected by its consequences.
  • Implementation and follow-up of a decision, whether it’s made by a group or not, is typically performed by individual supervisors.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s Administration. More information regarding this is available by calling 1-800-235-2664, or by visiting