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Key To Effective Decision Making: Constructive Controversy

It takes conflict to correct the common errors in decision making

The purpose of group decision making is to decide upon well-considered, well- understood, realistic action toward goals every member wishes to achieve (Johnson & F. Johnson, 2017). A group decision implies that some agreement prevails among group members as to which of several courses of action is most desirable for achieving the group’s goals. Typically, groups try to make their decisions as effective as possible. There are five major characteristics of an effective group decision (Johnson & F. Johnson, 2017):

· 1. The resources of group members are fully utilized.

· 2. Time is well used.

· 3. The decision is correct, or of high quality.

· 4. The decision is implemented fully by all the required group members.

· 5. The problem-solving ability of the group is improved, or at least not lessened.

A decision is effective to the extent that these five criteria are met.

The key to effective decision-making is constructive controversy. By their very nature decisions involve controversy (Johnson & F. Johnson, 2017). In making decisions, alternative courses of action are suggested and considered; then an agreement is reached as to which alternative would be most effective in solving the problem. Two problems in making effective decisions are that (a) often too few alternatives are suggested (members quickly agree on the first reasonable alternative suggested without considering other alternatives) and (b) only some of the alternatives being considered are thoroughly discussed (those without clear advocates are often ignored). Both of these problems are avoided if group members engage in a constructive controversy, which exists when one person’s ideas, information conclusions, theories, and opinions are incompatible with those of another, and the two seek to reach an agreement that reflects their best reasoned judgment (Johnson & R. Johnson, 2007, 2015).

To structure a constructive controversy in decision-making situations, group members first define the problem and second propose several alternative courses of action that may solve the problem. Third, advocacy teams of two or more group members are formed to (a) present the best case possible for one of the alternative courses of action and (b) critically analyze and refute the other alternatives. This ensures that each course of action receives a fair and complete hearing and receives a critical analysis of the pros and cons of adopting it. Each advocacy team researches its position and prepares a persuasive presentation to be given to the entire group to ensure their position gets a fair and complete hearing. The goal is to convince the members of the other advocacy teams of the validity of the team’s alternative course of action.

Fourth, Each advocacy team presents without being interrupted the best case possible for its assigned alternative course of action to the entire group. Other advocacy teams listen carefully, take notes, and strive to learn the information provided.

Fifth, There is an open discussion characterized by advocacy, refutation, and rebuttal. The advocacy teams give opposing positions a “trial by fire” by seeking to refute them by challenging the validity of their information and logic. Members of each team defend their position while continuing to attempt to persuade other group members of its validity. For higher-level reasoning and critical thinking to occur, it is necessary to probe and push each other’s conclusions. Members ask for data to support each other’s statements, clarify rationales, and show why their position is the most valid and rational. Members follow the specific rules for constructive controversy (Johnson & R. Johnson, 2007). Sometimes a “time-out” period or break needs to be provided so that advocacy teams can caucus and prepare new arguments.

Sixth, group members should encourage spirited arguing and playing devil’s advocate. Members should argue forcefully and persuasively for their position, presenting as many facts as they can to support their alternative course of action. Members should also listen critically to the opposing teams’ positions, ask them for their supporting facts, and then present counterarguments. Members should remember that the issue is complex and they understand all proposed alternative courses of action to make a good decision.

Seventh, group members should demonstrate their understanding of the pros and cons of all proposed alternative courses of action by summarizing them, that is, paraphrasing them. In paraphrasing the pros of an alternative course of action, the advocates of that alternative need to correct anything that is stated incorrectly and add anything that is left out until all members are confident that each understands the alternatives being considered. To make a reasoned, high quality decision, members must be able to see the problem from all available perspectives simultaneously.

Eighth, group members drop their advocacy and reach the best reasoned decision they are capable of by consensus, changing their mind only when the facts and the logic clearly indicate that they should do so. Sometimes the final decision is different from and of higher quality than the original alternatives considered.

Finally, as the decision is being finalized, all members commit themselves to implement it regardless of whether they initially favored it or not.

Decision making inherently involves conflict among alternative courses of action. This is primarily a conflict among ideas, that is a controversy. In order to manage a controversy constructively each alternative course of action needs to be strongly advocated and strongly critiqued. It is through the controversy process that high-quality decisions tend to be made.


Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (2017). Joining together: Group theory and research (13th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2007). Creative controversy: Academic conflict in the classroom (4th Ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W. (2015). Constructive controversy: Theory, research, and practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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