Don't Decide Like Martians

The most common team decision strategy is probably the worst.

Posted Nov 06, 2015

Individual decisions are hard enough, but team decisions can be even more difficult because we have to wrestle with competing agendas, competing interpretations, and arbitrary methods for capturing the intentions of the team members.

Some of the most common methods for teams to arrive at a decision are:  The leader can simply assert authority. The team can try to broker a course of action that reflects the desires of the members. Or the team can vote.

Now let’s increase the stakes. Let’s imagine that there are life and death consequences for the entire team. Many leaders would understandably refuse to assert authority — they would want the team members to weigh in on their readiness to take the risk. 

And let’s imagine that the decision is go/no go, rather than something that can be moderated. So now we can’t rely on a brokered compromise. 

That leaves one option: a vote. But how should the team carry out that vote? 

The issue comes up in settings like the following. We are cross-country skiing the back country with a group of friends. The safest terrain is very flat, but that doesn’t offer much excitement. We go looking for hills that will be fun to glide down, the steeper the better, up to a point. And now we have reached that point. The steepness of the hills in front of us, and the heaviness of the snow pack, pose a risk of an avalanche. Should we take that risk, or back off? Safety protocol is to take the pulse of the group, to see who wants to proceed and who doesn’t. Safety protocol is to vote so that any squeamish team member has a veto.

Unfortunately, a typical vote (hands up if you want to chance it — and now hands up if you want the group to withdraw or else poll each team member one at a time) puts enormous social pressure to conform. It puts pressure not to disappoint the risk seekers who have come all this way for adventure. It puts pressure not to seem like a wimp. Most of the time these votes are a sham.

The better way to vote is to make the choices confidential. Each team member can be given one black and one white bead. Each member would select one bead (say, the white bead for backing off or the black for continuing) and put it in an opaque bag so that no one can see any of the votes. The team members would put the other bead in a second bag for discards. Once each team member has voted, the leader publicly displays the contents of the first bag so the team can see what it chose.

I recently watched the film The Martian, and was troubled. (Spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen the film but intend to, you might want to stop reading and come back to this piece later.) I enjoyed the movie and recommend it, but I didn’t like the message it sent about team decision-making. Faced with the life-and-death decision about whether to go back for their stranded comrade, the spaceship team used the typical voting scheme — a public statement. Those mostly likely to opt for the rescue went first, building up social pressure on the waverers. Thus, the team arrived at a unanimous vote on an extremely risky decision.

I am not complaining about the realism of the procedure. My complaint is with the way the film modeled poor team decision making. Team members with realistic apprehension were railroaded into taking a large gamble with their lives. I fear that lives will be lost as moviegoers emulate what they watched on screen and get trapped in untenable conditions should they have to make their own life-and-death team decisions.

I am not opposed to heroism, as long as people choose for themselves. I am opposed to bullying others into taking risks they want to avoid.

Hopefully, audience members can ignore the predictable Hollywood ending of The Martian, perhaps imagining alternative endings in which the team meets with disaster. Compare The Martian with another recent movie, Everest. (Same spoiler alert as before.) Rob Hall, the mountaineering team leader, accepted all the responsibility. He broke his own inviolable rule about everyone who hadn’t summited by 2:00 pm turning back, and managed to kill himself and several members of his expedition. I suspect that if the decision to press on was put to a Martian-style vote, the expedition would have voted to go for the summit. Everest didn’t glorify excessive risk taking. Instead, it left its audience reflecting on the consequences of over-confidence.

Let’s not pretend that we are invincible Hollywood heroes. Let’s not decide like Martians.