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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

The Problem with Voting

Those who guide groups have a window seat on group behavior, and here's a key learning: Never take power away from a group once they’ve understood their collective authority. Nowhere is this more visible than in attempts to use voting as a method for resolving competing visions.

Winners and Losers

When I was a teacher, educators were often taught to use voting to resolve conflicts in the classroom. But voting always failed my students and me. Arguments, hurt feelings, and blame always accompanied voting, even with the most mature high school classes. The logrolling and deal-making that accompanies regular voting also made a poor climate for nurturing community.

While voting can be important to use when making simple decisions with little time, it does mean winners and losers. It means the group is forced to repair itself afterward. It means confusion, too, if choices aren't simple and clearly differentiated--to the point that groups addicted to "democracy" will often oversimplify choices in order to justify a vote.

Five options are written on cards in the first column of a decision matrix, rated on several criteria in the top row.
Sticky walls make great surfaces for decision matrices--a nuanced and effective decision-making method.

What about efficiency?

No one wants to sit in endless meetings in a traditional consensus process, with blocking figures filibustering issues from paint colors to mission statements. Often facilitators will resort to voting in their darkest hour, when the group seems stuck and the clock is ticking. Collaboration requires a skilled facilitator who can navigate deliberative processes with well-chosen tools and ground-rules. Some tips:

  • Before you even accept a facilitative role, make sure leadership is employing the appropriate decision-making process. How much does the "rightness" of the decision matter, and how narrow or wide are the limitations on the decisions? How important is buy-in to the decisions you’re making? Do you really have the time to seek the participation you desire? Is that participation level appropriate to the context? You need ample time, clear data, and explicit boundaries to work successfully with groups.

  • Provide relational time. Make sure you're asking enough reflective questions for people to bring themselves fully to the table--even vulnerability. In addition, ensure your numbers in small-group breakouts reflect the level of need for relationship building. You may think you can guide a group quickly toward a decision, but if participants rarely get to talk, or must coexist in a toxic environment, you'll need to provide time for them to build social capital early in the day. Frame big decisions--especially "next-step" or priority decisions, in terms of catalytic actions. What's important to do first, because other elements will thrive if that step is the first? What will inspire the group most if we do it first? This way, you're helping a group to work within human nature and what motivates groups most, rather than choosing something merely out of abstract importance.

  • If a group is embroiled in indecision, take a break. This can be a traditional snack break, a quick physical activity, or even silent reflection. Neuroscience is unanimous: Breaks are key to decision-making capacity. If a group is still struggling after a break, use a mini focused conversation to bring participants to consensus around how and when they want to decide on a matter. They may end up choosing a traditional vote, in which case, you can help the group plan how they want to handle the ideas they vote down.

  • Show a group throughout your session a variety of ways to take their own pulse. For example, I use check-ins with a group using the "fist-to-five” method early in the day, especially if I know they're in for a big decision by the session's end. Once introduced, I've had groups initiate it, and it's quite powerful. It heads off unnecessary conversation, builds trust, and reveals dissent that might otherwise derail implementation.

It bears repeating: Never take power away from a group once they’ve understood their collective authority. Great facilitation helps groups come together to solve complex problems and implement solutions with intrinsic motivation. Voting often returns a group to a state of dependency upon a central, charismatic figure or leader who must then take responsibility for implementing a decision--often one which up to half the participants did not vote for. Avoid it if you can.

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