Tip #562: M&M’s And Decision-Making Styles

“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. ” Carl Gustav Jung

I am a chocoholic, so I love two very effective learning activities that involve counting M&M’s. This Tip focuses on the first activity, which uses M&M’s to enable participants to experience the consequences of different leadership decision-making styles. The next Tip will focus on the second activity, which uses M&M’s to experience the process and impact of a work audit.

Assessing Leadership Decision Making Styles

This is an activity that I believe I adapted many years ago from one printed for public use in the Pfeiffer Annuals.

Prior to the class, I fill a glass jar to the top with peanut M&M’s candies from a large bag. I use peanut M&M’s instead of plain M&M’s candies because I need to count the total number of M&M’s necessary to fill the jar. A large bag may have over 500 pieces of candy!

I form seven small groups and assign each a different decision making style that they will use to estimate how many M&M’s are in the jar. The group coming up with the number closest to the total in the jar will win the jar and its contents.

  1. The member with the most authority makes the decision.

I appoint one member to be the leader. This person is told to exercise control by such means as telling the group how to sit while waiting for the decision to be made and how to use their time while she is deciding.

The leader then estimates how many candy pieces are in the jar and announces his or her decision to the group.

  1. The member with the most expertise makes the decision.

I appoint the member with the most training in mathematics to be the leader. This “expert” then considers how many candy pieces are in the jar, makes a decision, and announces it to the group.

  1. The opinions of the individual members are averaged.

Each member of the group is told to back away from the group so that s/he cannot see the answers of other group members and they cannot see his or her answer. Each member independently estimates the number of candy pieces in the jar without interacting with the other group members.

The recorder then asks each member for his or her estimate, adds the estimates, and divides the sum by the number of members. The resulting number is announced as the group’s decision.

  1. The member with the most authority makes the decision following a group discussion.

I appoint one member to be the leader, and s/he calls the meeting to order. The “authority” asks the group to discuss how many candy pieces are in the jar.

When the “authority” thinks s/he knows how many candy pieces are in the jar, the “authority” announces her decision to the group. This is not consensus or majority vote- the leader has full responsibility and makes the decision s/he thinks is best.

  1. A minority of group members makes the decision.

I appoint an executive committee of two members. The committee meets away from the group to decide how many candy pieces are in the jar. They announce their decision to the group.

  1. Majority vote.

Each group member estimates the number of candy pieces in the jar, and the group then votes on which estimate is to be its decision. When the majority of members agree on an estimate, the group decision is made.

  1. Consensus.

All members of the group participate in a discussion as to how many candy pieces are in the jar. They are told to discuss the issue until all members of the group can live with and support the group’s estimate.

The group is expected to follow these guidelines:

  1. Avoid arguing blindly for your own opinions. Present your position as clearly and logically as possible, but listen to other members’ reactions and consider them carefully before you press your point.
  1. Avoid changing your mind only to reach agreement and avoid conflict. Support only solutions with which you are at least somewhat able to agree. Yield only to positions that have objective and logically sound foundations.
  1. Avoid conflict-reducing procedures such as majority voting, tossing a coin, averaging, and bargaining.
  1. Seek out differences of opinion. They are natural and expected. Try to involve everyone in the decision process. Disagreements can improve the group’s decision because they present a wide range of information and opinions, thereby creating a better chance for the group to hit upon more adequate solutions.
  1. Do not assume that someone must win and someone must lose when discussion reaches a stalemate. Instead, look for the next most acceptable alternative for all members.
  1. Discuss underlying assumptions, listen carefully to one another, and encourage the participation of all members.

When an estimate is agreed on, all members then complete the post decision questionnaire.

The individual members of each group discuss their ratings for the questions on the Post Decision Questionnaire, using a 9-point scale (where 1 is “not at all” and 9 is “completely.”) Each group then creates a group composite of the ratings for each question.

The questions are:

  1. How understood and listened to did you feel in your group?
  1. How much influence do you feel you had in your group’s decision- making?
  1. How committed do you feel to the decision your group made?
  1. How much responsibility do you feel for making the decision work?
  1. How satisfied do you feel with the amount and quality of your participation in your group’s decision making?
  1. Write one adjective that describes the atmosphere in your group during the decision-making.

The groups report their estimate, as well as composite ratings and adjectives, all of which I enter into a ratings table on a flipchart. The ensuing large group discussion of their responses and the rationale behind them tends to open participants’ eyes. They see how the quality of a decision and the acceptance of the decision by those who must implement it vary greatly, depending upon the leadership decision-making style.

At the end of the discussion, I announce which group estimate was closest to the actual total and give the jar of M&M’s to that group. I do recommend that they share their bounty with the other participants to ensure peace and harmony in the classroom!

May your learning be sweet.


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