Recently, I asked two similar groups of university students to make a group decision. The decision was about nominating one person in the group that made the biggest impression in presenting their final assignment. I asked them how they would like to decide who would be nominated. Should we have an open conversation or shall we vote? It so happened that the two groups chose a different procedure to come to a nomination.
The groups consisted of more or less 10 students. Group 1 chose to make a decision through having an open conversation. We sat in a circle and started talking about the impressions of everyone. It soon became clear that there were two candidates for the nomination. Interestingly, for very different reasons. The one candidate was perceived as having performed very well in the assignment, the other candidate got nominated because students were rewarding the progress this person made during the course. Now the group started discussing which nomination would make the most sense, what were actually the best reasons for a nomination? And so the conversation continued and ultimately the whole group agreed on who to nominate.
Group 2 chose to have a secret vote. One student mentioned that if we would share our choices out loud, it might affect the decisions of others. Then we would be biased. We created little pieces of paper where every student wrote down the name of the student they wished to nominate. They insisted I voted too. I could sense excitement and anticipation in the classroom as I collected the papers. Who would get the most votes? The students were quiet as I counted them. It was a clear decision as almost everyone voted for the same student. We congratulated the nominee and commented on the outstanding performance.
It struck me that both processes of making a group decision felt so different. In the first group, I witnessed how students were engaged and listened to as we all learned about everyone’s views in the process of making a decision. Biases were out in the open and discussed. And indeed, some changed their mind about who should be nominated because they understood new perspectives they could consider. Is that unfair? I think not. Changing your mind based on new information and insight makes sense. In group 2 we only learned that the majority of students agreed on the nomination, but we didn’t have a clear understanding for what reasons. The minority votes and perspectives were simply outvoted.
The two groups had a different experience of participation in decision making. Group 1 engaged in a kind of consensus-based decision making that included everyone equally and valued the process itself as a form of direct democratic practice. Group 2 experienced another form of democratic decision making. In this process, the group missed out on learning about the considerations of all the voters. In other contexts, especially when the stakes are higher, this kind of voting could lead to a tyranny of the majority where minorities are oppressed. In group 1 there was no minority and although there were different views, students agreed on their group’s decision.
We have choices in how to make group decisions. When ordering pizza and when shaping the direction of our organisations and societies. How will you go about making a group decision next time?