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Involving staff in decision making

Roger Clough

The author advises us to be aware of the processes taking place in the group, the capacities of members, their stage of working together.

Shared decision making is one of the 'in' phrases of management including residential work. It has become a justification in itself, a necessary part of progressive practice. Yet it is an elusive phrase, both because it is difficult to define and also because it is even harder to turn into reality.

I want to discuss some general points and then move on to a discussion of methods what ways are there to help staff share in decisions? Leaders in residential units may find themselves frustrated when their good ideas, which staff have appeared to accept, fail to get put into practice. A first essential is for a leader to acknowledge that others may have good ideas too. The leader who believes that only he knows both what is wrong and how to put it right, cannot involve staff in shared decision making. He is in the business simply of selling his own views. Of course the leader ought to have ideas (not certainties) based on experience and theory of what should be done. But if he is not open to change, he is unlikely to expect it of others.

One step at a time
Before proceeding to discuss what ought to be done in a given situation, one should consider what people's opinions are of what is happening at the present. Staff must share with each other their beliefs, their attitudes and their feelings. It is dangerous to proceed to the next stage until this has happened. Staff must openly share with each other some of their feelings, perhaps their uncertainties, their likes and dislikes, about what happens in the organisation. Without this sharing it is possible to reach a rapid public agreement about tasks, but outside the meeting there will be private disagreement expressed in a multitude of ways. Such cracks should not be papered over. Having set the scene by encouraging discussion so that staff members have a better understanding of each other, it is appropriate to proceed to the next two stages. These are, to share ideas of what might be done and to reach an agreement about some aspect of what will be done.

Getting to the decisions
The underlying premise so far is that if people understand each others' positions and work together towards planning, they will have a greater commitment to carrying through what is to be agreed. How then is this to be achieved? What ways are there of running a meeting which allows such a sharing of ideas, leading to shared decision making? The first task is to encourage each person to make a statement to himself and then to make this to others. It is common in meetings for a few individuals to talk, some to listen and others to be flotsam, carried along by the tide. Nobody is to be allowed to be flotsam each is to commit him or herself to thinking and stating their viewpoints, even though at first only to themselves. An important proviso here is that groups of people may be at different stages of development and cohesiveness. In some groups it may be possible for individuals to make their view known to others more or less straight away this means that in such groups two stages may be combined.

Thinking in writing
Thus the task is to get people to think and to commit themselves. Writing is a very good way of giving time for reflection and developing commitment. There are many possibilities. One is to devise simple pencil and paper exercises for everyone (leader included) to complete. Sentence completion exercises are useful. For example: "What I like about my job is ... What I am not so sure about is ... or I wish other staff members would ... These should be simple and clear in format and should be completed quickly by everyone at the same time for example, at a staff meeting. Another technique is to ask everyone to write down their feeling about something during the meeting. For example: "l'd like to start by each of us writing down a few words about how we felt when we heard about... " The subsequent meeting is very different, since it starts with each person having thought about the issue.

Following on, one must find ways of sharing this information with others. It may be useful to do this first in small groups, pairs or trios, but a way must be found for sharing in public. People may feel that their views are not very useful, perhaps because they think they are not very bright or because they have not been on a course and cannot speak the right 'language'. One way of helping to overcome such hesitancy is to exclude discussion as part of the initial exercise only allow the statement of views. A comment is made by or on behalf of each person (in the latter case each member of a pair would comment for the other). Having made a statement one may allow questions of fact: "Did you mean...?" "Would you develop ... ?" Subsequently one may proceed to working on ideas in the group and it is at this point that the discussion becomes appropriate. The leader should look for differences in opinions, for what distinguishes one person's view from another. Otherwise there will be a false unanimity and differences will be left to lurk beneath the surface. Questioning may lead to confrontation or challenge and this may not be comfortable. The leader or facilitator will be conscious of this.

It is crucial for people to listen to each other. There are ways of learning this, for example, by getting each speaker to repeat to the satisfaction of the last speaker his statement before proceeding to one's own. Role-play, putting people in different or opposite situations, may also help an understanding of others' viewpoints. As work in the group develops, it is possible to move towards planning tasks. At all stages the leader needs to think about how to get people to commit themselves, how to ensure that others listen, and to check with each member their position in relation to a particular suggestion. The leader must think about the purpose of the meetings. Account must be taken of the processes taking place in the group, the capacities of members, their stage of working together. The more neglected part is that attention must also be given to techniques. Holding staff meetings will not necessarily lead to people sharing in decisions since it is easy for a few to speak and others not to listen. Such techniques may seem mechanical but knowledge of mechanics is essential.

This feature: Social Work Today, 11, 27.