An expression I detest is “I can speak for everyone when I say…”
Why is it assumed that you can speak for everyone in a group, or that everyone shares your preferences and opinions?
This is an example of self-appointed decision making. A self-appointed decision maker, be it an individual or group, gives themselves the authority to make decisions on behalf of someone else. A simple example is when someone adjusts the thermostat in a shared space without determining whether other people want the temperature changed. Self-appointed decisions occur when someone either 1) prioritizes their own interests without caring about or considering the interest of others, 2) assumes that others share their own preferences, or 3) assumes that they have already understood and considered the interests of others.
Organizations that tolerate self-appointed decision making tend to breed a culture of mistrust and unspoken narratives. When employees continually see leaders make even the tiniest of decisions without consulting others, it sends the message that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.
Here are some tips to create more open and inclusive decision-making processes, and to keep self-appointed decision makers in check:
1. Question the assumption of consensus – One of the reasons self-appointed decision making is tolerated is because the decision is presented as incontrovertible. Imagine that during a heated discussion, one person declares, “Let’s agree to disagree and, for the sake of time, move on to the next item on the agenda.” The speaker provided no alternative, and instead asserted only one way forward. When this happens, rather than acquiescing to the decision, offer alternative perspectives that question the legitimacy of the decision.
• “I’m not sure that everyone is ready to move on.”
• “I actually think there are some things that we do agree on.”
• “Although we might not agree, I feel like this is unresolved. Before we move on maybe we can agree on a better time to explore this.”
2. Call it out – Many people simply are not aware that they are making unilateral decisions. Bring attention to the fact that they are deciding alone without considering others.
• “What other stakeholders have been considered in this decision?”
• “Have other people signed off on the decision?”
• “You are the only person who has expressed an opinion, so it might not make sense to act yet.”
3. Invite others to share their perspectives – Sometimes, everyone is on the same page, but a self-appointed decision maker assumes this without testing it first. A good way to counter a self-appointed decision, and to either test or confirm consensus is to invite others into the conversation.
• “Who wants to move on, and who has more to say on this?”
• “There are several people we haven’t heard from yet and I’d like to hear what everyone has to say about this.”
• “Can we check to see whether we all agree with that before we do it?”
4. Speak up – Inviting others can be a great way to bring alternative perspectives into the conversation, but if you are the one who has the alternative perspective, don’t rely on others to be your voice. Develop the courage to directly challenge decisions that you don’t consent to.
• “Before you act, I have more to say.”
• “As someone who will be impacted by that decision, I don’t think my perspective has been explored.”
• “I might be the only one in the room, but I don’t support this decision.”
If you want to improve the effectiveness of your team’s decisions and foster a culture of trust, practice these alternatives to self-appointed decision making.
Director of Programs