Decision-Making: When to Use One of Four Distinct Approaches

I recently worked with a management team in the technology sector – the purpose was team building and one of the steps was to assess the current state of the team. One of the positives that emerged was a consensus-based culture where everyone felt heard, with very few exceptions. On the other hand, the team suffered from poorly run meetings and difficulty making timely decisions. At one point the team communicated that they wished the leader would simply make decisions himself more often, and the leader agreed.

As it turns out, these are typical downsides of consensus culture. While consensus has its place, a good leader will use different decision-making approaches including Democratic, Autocratic, Consultative and Consensus depending on how important the issue is and who is involved/affected.

Consider this “crib sheet” on when to use these four decision-making approaches:


Democracy means making decisions based on what the majority wants to do.

  • Benefits: Speed (even with large groups), guaranteeing a minimum level of buy-in (“51%”)
  • Risk / Downside: Poor decision quality
  • Use for: Large stakeholder groups when the item is low importance


Autocratic decisions refer to decisions made by one individual on behalf of others.

  • Benefits: Speed
  • Risk / Downside: Decision quality is variable and depends on the expertise of the decision maker. Buy-in is variable and depends on the credibility of the decision maker.
  • Use for: Small stakeholder groups when the item is low importance


Consultation is an extension of autocracy. However, before making a decision, the decision maker seeks input from a diverse group of thoughtfully selected people, then uses their input to make a decision.

  • Benefits: Decision quality (assuming effective consultation)
  • Risk / Downside: Buy-in may be variable, especially if people cannot see how their input was either incorporated or effectively rebutted
  • Use for: Large stakeholder groups when the item is high importance


Consensus means that everyone can live with a specific decision.

  • Benefits: Maximizes buy-in
  • Risk / Downside: Becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming as the group size increases and may result in decisions being “watered down” / over-compromised to gain people’s support
  • Use for: Small stakeholder groups when the item is high importance

Using these simple guidelines can go a long way to balancing the need for decision quality, buy-in and time investment.

This is one of many tools and approaches covered in Kwela’s Critical Thinking and Decision-Making workshop.

Russel Horwitz, Principal