Calling the Question

Calling the Question 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Earlier this week, I read a post by Charlie Judy on his always thought provoking blog, HR Fishbowl, titled “Stop Playing Nice if it Doesn’t Advance the Ball.”  The post overall is about how we have come to be crippled in business by the desire for majority rule or consensus in business decisions.  Charlie outlines how the compulsion towards unanimous support is causing us to become progressively more inefficient and ineffective.  

There was one section in particular that stuck out to me in the post: 

Rarely have I been to a meeting where the leader actually opens it by saying something like, “I’ve gathered you here today to gain your perspective on a decision we’re trying to make. Once we’ve heard from you we’ll be making our decision based primarily on what we believe is best for the organization; that decision may or may not directly reflect your input.” 

He’s right.  This is rare.  Having your voice heard and your opinion counted has seemingly become an entitlement in our organizations.  And, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, this isn’t a good thing.     Yes, it is good to hear out employee opinions when and where appropriate, but there are times when not all opinions count.  But, this isn’t the real issue that jumped out at me.

The bigger issue and the reason we have this problem is a lack of leadership.  Charlie implies that many of us are driving towards majority rule.  I’m not even sure that this is true.  I think, particularly as leaders within HR, we are held at times to a standard that every major decision we make requires unanimous support.  But, even if we assume that majority rule would be sufficient, there’s a leadership moment within any debate/discussion where it’s clear that unanimous support will not be attained so it’s time to call the question.  Calling the question is a concept within parliamentary procedure that is essentially a formal motion to end debate immediately and take a vote on the issue at hand.  Calling the question in a practical sense requires you, as a leader, to have some courage to know when it’s time to stop debating and to make a decision.  It also means moving forward with a decision, even if close to half the people don’t agree with the it.

But, even if you can muster up the courage to call the question as a leader, that’s just the beginning.  The reality of leadership is that while you generally want the opinions and input of others in decision making, it’s rarely left up to a vote.  You are ultimately the decision maker so it’s your call.  So, calling the question really comes down to you being willing to end the discussion, and have the guts to make a decision–popular or not.

One of my mentors and the CEO of a company I worked for in the past was great at this.  When the organization was facing a big decision, he would gather his team together.  They would be briefed on all of the important information related to the decision.  Then, they would have a period of spirited discussion and debate on the topic.  Sometimes, they would come to a unanimous decision and the decision was made.  Other times, the opinions in the room were split.  My mentor would listen to and participate in the discussion as it happened.  But, then when he felt the debate had made the issues clear enough for him, he would end the discussion.  At that point, he would either declare what decision he had made and that he expected everyone to support it or he’d thank the group for the discussion and adjourn to contemplate the decision more fully before making his decision.  Either way, he was a master at calling the question and making decisions.

This approach was powerful for two reasons.  First, he had a great process for gathering and hearing people’s input.  He listened to and considered input from the people who had relevant perspectives on the topic at hand.  So, people felt both heard and involved in the decision making process.  Second, he moved swiftly through debate to decision.  This meant that we didn’t linger in the “not knowing” for very long.  We knew that a decision would be made.  We also knew that either we needed to come swiftly to a group decision or that he would make it for us.  This created purposeful debate and focused effort towards making decisions.

As a closing thought, I think that using the script that I included from Charlie’s post is a great model to use as a leader who has to move groups through major decisions as a group.  However, I would add one more sentence to the end of that script:

“Once the decision is made, regardless of your personal feelings related to this decision, I expect you to support and execute it fully and enthusiastically.”  

To effectively call the question as a leader, the group needs to know that once the debate ends and the decision is made, it’s time to make the transition from discussion to execution.  Agree with the decision or not, our job is to make it work.  Period.  


  • Tino

    I enjoyed your dialog. You should check out Harvard Business Review's article entitled, "Fair Process". It describes exactly what you're getting at here. Great job. I have your blog on my HR blog that I'm getting ready to go live with in the next few weeks.


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Jason Lauritsen