Facilitators exist to bring together a group of people in a positive collaborative process, managing their disparate opinions and overcoming conflict to achieve a goal. As a part of facilitation, facilitators often use participatory decision-making, which is the intentional invitation to employees, stakeholders, or other individuals to take an active part in the decision-making process.

Many leaders today are looking for ways to improve corporate culture and overturn outdated practices. When used correctly, participatory decision-making can help achieve this by generating greater alignment and more engaged employees, particularly when implemented by a skilled facilitator.

In this article, we’ll break down participatory decision-making and how facilitators use it as outlined in the third edition of Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.

What Is Participatory Decision-Making?

Participatory decision-making, sometimes called participative decision-making, is the use of a collaborative process when making business decisions that involve not just leaders but also employees and other stakeholders. This level of organizational employee participation can establish a positive relationship between typical employees and the organization’s leadership.

In the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, the value of participatory decision-making is explained as “unleashing the power of face-to-face groups, first to raise awareness and evoke mutual compassion, and then—potentially—to embolden participants to align their aspirations and undertake new, jointly developed actions that aim, with hope and courage, to address, and even resolve, the world’s toughest problems.”

Participatory decision-making is closely tied to another practice: participative leadership (sometimes called collaborative leadership). Harvard Law School defines participative leadership as “a type of democratic leadership style in which subordinates are intentionally involved in organizational decision-making.” Effective group decision-making can replace a traditional autocratic style and lead to better business outcomes. 

Participatory decision-making has been studied by researchers interested in group dynamics and leadership styles—notably, the efforts of participatory decision-making were examined in Black and Gregersen’s Participative Decision-Making: An Integration of Multiple Dimensions, published in 1997.

4 Core Values of Participatory Decision-Making

In order to promote success in the participatory decision-making process, facilitators should go beyond foundational facilitation skills with these four core values.

1. Full Participation

The level of employee participation can be closely tied to the success of a meeting. Great facilitators of participative decision-making have an understanding of the value of this participation, often intuitively. According to Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, “In a typical business-as-usual discussion, self-expression is highly constrained.” With full employee participation, all participants can explore endless possibilities of ideas, going beyond the typical familiar opinions and embracing diverse perspectives.

A great facilitator will build a safe, welcoming environment where all participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. Facilitators can also manage outspoken individuals who have the tendency to dominate conversations to give other less bold attendees a chance to participate.

2. Mutual Understanding

Facilitators should establish that the participants must accept that their peers have unique perspectives and needs during the process. In participatory decision-making, the common ground is clear: the problem. Everyone has their own unique decision-making style to bring to the table, and thus, by considering the problem from one another’s point of view, more diverse ideas can be generated. 

3. Inclusive Solutions

Just as the process of participative decision-making should work for and include everyone, the solutions that are generated should be inclusive to the needs of everyone in the group. Inclusive solutions are usually not clear-cut from the outset; instead, these solutions emerge as the participatory decision-making process goes on.

The nature of participatory decision-making supports the creation of these desirable inclusive solutions, as the process requires the sharing of differing perspectives, debating the options, and addressing any objections.

4. Shared Responsibility

The responsibility for the process, decision, and outcome should be shared among the participants. This starts during the participatory decision-making meeting by distributing the roles of keeping notes, scheduling follow-ups, and managing other tasks. Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making explains, “Understanding this principle leads everyone to take personal responsibility for making sure they are satisfied with the proposed course of action.”

Facilitating Participatory Decision-Making

In practice, groups do not tend to naturally follow a smooth trajectory toward consensus. Facilitators can benefit from visualizing the ideal pathway in participative decision-making, like Sam Kaner’s “Diamond of Participation,” shown below.

During participatory decision-making, a challenge is introduced. The initial discussion is the Divergent Zone, where familiar opinions are quickly established and divergent thinking begins, allowing a variety of ideas and perspectives to be introduced, combined, and refined. This divergence of ideas is critical to creating an innovative, sustainable solution. 

Next is the Groan Zone, which we’ll discuss in detail next. After the Groan Zone, convergent thinking occurs in the Convergent Zone, where participants can consolidate their thinking and refine their ideas, allowing them to finally come to the Closure Zone and a final decision.

An idealized model of the decision-making process may skip over the Groan Zone—but this section is where groups can find common ground and grow in their insight. Facilitators should never force the process into an ideal model, as that will squeeze out the opportunity for organic innovation and collaboration.

In a “business as usual” meeting, participants do not move past the familiar opinions and convergent thinking that they are used to. Participatory decision-making requires a more thorough approach to addressing the problem.

“The Groan Zone”

In the center of the Diamond of Participation lies the Groan Zone. This stage is the most challenging and uncomfortable part of the process, occurring after divergent thinking has been embraced and many ideas, notes, and objections have been generated.

Now, participants must organize their ideas and make sense of what they’ve discussed so far to move forward and refine a plan. “Structured activities are directive,” says Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, “they’re designed to let people follow clear procedures, and they pull for sincerity, earnestness, and relationship building. All these characteristics can ground a group whose communication is poor.”

Facilitators can utilize a range of structured thinking tools to help participants work through this stage, from open discussion and debates to categorizing and counseling. Facilitators must also manage the energy during this time period, preventing boredom and burnout.

Effective Group Decision-Making through Open Discussion

Open discussion is one of the most standard aspects of any meeting since it’s typical to freely talk about a particular topic without much structure, but that freedom can lead to meandering conversations that don’t produce any real progress.

Skilled facilitators have the tools to navigate open discussion in participatory decision-making effectively, preventing the meeting from being difficult to sit through or unproductive. Facilitators should manage the flow of discussion to ensure optimal participation as well as work to increase understanding between participants even when they have diverse or conflicting perspectives.

Open discussion facilitation techniques can include:

  • Stacking – This technique involves identifying who would like to contribute to a certain question or discussion point prior to anyone speaking. Those who want to participate are “stacked” or listed in a certain order to ensure everyone has their time to speak.
  • Using the Clock – Facilitators can call out a set amount of time for specific feedback or to invite anyone who hasn’t contributed yet to speak while raising the stakes by setting a clear time limit.
  • Tolerating Silences – Silence can be uncomfortable, but it can also mean that people are thinking. Skilled facilitators know that thoughtful, intentional silences during participatory decision-making can be hugely beneficial.
  • Paraphrasing and Mirroring – Reflective listening techniques like paraphrasing and mirroring are staples for effective facilitators, as they provide clarity and ensure that the participants are driving the decision-making process, not the facilitator.
  • Making Space – Facilitators can look out for individuals who may have something to say but not get the chance to. A facilitator can use their role to specifically call out and thus make space for those participants, ensuring that they are not ignored.
  • Sequencing – Similar to stacking, sequencing involves intentionally organizing the flow of conversation. In the case of sequencing, the sequenced items are topics or perspectives rather than participants.
  • Deliberate Refocusing – This technique is a non-neutral intervention that moves the focus from one topic to another at the facilitator’s discretion. 
  • Tracking – Facilitators can manage multiple topics and lines of thought by tracking each one, ensuring that they dedicate time to returning to each of the topics.
  • Framing – Facilitators remind the participants of what the purpose of the meeting is, asking them to rethink the particular content they are discussing with that in mind.

These open discussion techniques are just a few of the ways a facilitator may manage open discussion during the participatory decision-making process.

Implementing Participatory Decision-Making for Your Organization

Participatory decision-making supports sustainable agreements where all team members are engaged and committed. The process can be difficult, but a skilled facilitator can assist in working through the Groan Zone and toward a refined decision.

At Voltage Control, we are leading experts in facilitating participatory decision-making processes. We help leaders and teams harness the power of facilitation through our certifications, workshops, and beyond. Voltage Control also hosts Facilitation Lab, a facilitator community. The Facilitation Lab weekly meetup provides a free place to engage with and learn from other facilitators in a way that deepens learning and exposure to new techniques and tools.

Contact Voltage Control to learn how participatory decision-making can change the future of your organization.

Kraner, S., Lind, L., Toldi, C., Fisk, S., & Berger, D. (2014). Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Third). Jossey-Bass. 

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