by Jonette Crowley
copyright Jonette Crowley 2008
I’ve been thinking about group decision making and reflecting that it just doesn’t happen in the work setting, but also in families. I saw this play out several years ago when my Dad died at age 74 from a staph infection that resulted from heart surgery. All six of his children were at his side.
Participating in the family decision making that led to removing Dad from life support taught me so much about the group process of reaching consensus. I watched as the decision unfolded one sibling at a time. Before this I had assumed that a decision was the outcome or the actual choice itself, in this case “to unplug Dad”. But what I deeply understood that day in the ICU waiting room is that the decision is also the process. Why this seemed so clear in this case was that the outcome – to unhook him and allow him to die—was probably already known in each of our minds, yet we still needed to engage in group decision making.
Perhaps by virtue of being the oldest or because I was less emotionally distraught, I assumed a leadership role. I “called the question” with the data: Dad became brain-dead the night before with no hope of recovery. I then stated my opinion of a course of action in order to put the issue clearly in front of the family, “I think we should talk to the doctor about removing Dad from life-support.” Then I sat back, as this was not my decision to make. I held a space for the real process of decision making to occur.
We all took turns expressing our feelings, our opinion, our very raw emotions around the question. One brother expressed anger “You can’t just schedule a death.” Our youngest sister was ready to begin getting things organized. For her and for me, we deal with loss or major change by digging in to the tasks at hand. Two other sisters bickered at each other – that had always been their reaction to stress. Another brother silently wept. We all honored each other’s processing to get to the ultimate conclusion. By taking the time for such a discussion and expression of feelings the real decision was made. What I now understand is the decision wasn’t about getting mental agreement or buy-in to the course of action, but in allowing the space for the emotional agreement to evolve.
As leaders our job is to call the question, to be emotionally unattached to our opinion as we hold a potent neutral field for the evolution of a group decision. In this way we serve by power, not by force.