Decision Making Authority: When You Have It and When You Don’t


If you search on the phrase “ladder of decision making” on the internet, you find some great graphics.  The graphic overview handout we provide you today (free download link is below) is only one version. You can find ones that apply to schools, citizen involvement, leaders in a corporate setting and so on.  Our version is applicable to most meetings you find in organizations.  There are no wrong levels of decision making authority. If you want to be trusted, you will achieve best results if you are honest about what you are needing from the group. For example, do not pretend to want your team’s input on whether to make a decision when it has already been decided.

Here are 8 levels of decision making from most hierarchical to most participative that we briefly describe in the 3 minute video below. Decide which is most applicable to your situation and choose the relevant activities or processes needed for that level of input. More on this in the written blog below as we provide a few examples of facilitation processes we might use for each level.

Stages 1-3: Hierarchical Models of Decision Making

These first three stages are where the senior leaders make the decision. However, you can still use some facilitative processes to help your group understand and own the decision.

Stage 1:  Information

Your goal is to inform the group about a decision.  You do not want any input but you can get them to discuss the decision in a participatory way to help them understand it.

You might ask them the following questions: (these questions are sequenced as in the ToP Focused Conversation Method):  What did you hear the decision was?  What is not clear to you? What else do you need to know to be effective in implementing it?  What is helpful about having this decision made? What is challenging for you? What are some ways you can communicate this decision to those who do not know about it?   What will make this easier for you to implement it?

Stage 2: Persuasion

You want them to understand it, accept it and be able to apply it when needed as intended. You do not want resistance to it.

You might have a similar discussion as for stage 1 with slight modifications: What did you hear the decision was?  What is helpful about this decision? What is challenging for you?  What are different ways you could test this decision to make sure it working well for you and your teams?   What are the most important reasons you think this decision will be helpful to us at this time?  What will make this easier for you to educate others about it?  How could you contribute to its successful implementation?   What else do you need now to  go forth and make this decision successful?

Note – you are still giving a voice to their challenges but emphasizing there is no “turning back”, i.e. the decision will  proceed. You want to make it feasible to live by this decision.

Stage 3: Education

If people do not know about the decision they cannot apply it. Your purpose is to ensure the right people know all the component parts of the decision. This way they can tell others why the decision exists and how to apply it.  Essentially you hope that employees or community members are able to use their minds intelligently when applying it or making slight deviations to the decision.

One process you could use is to is have them role play telling others about the decision and being able to listen well and respond to concerns about why it might not work.  You also need the group to explore the boundaries around the decision. Which are non-negotiable? Where is there latitude to  adjust a few small aspects of the decision.  Here you want to provide processes where the people in the room deeply understand all the nuances of the decision and how it is to be implemented.  You might use a force field analysis tool (see resources below) where the group can explore both the drivers that caused this decision to be made and the resistances that  may continue to get in the way of the decision being applied intelligently.

Celebrate the decision!

In the first three stages, you might also invite people to celebrate the decision. Emphasize the positive impact it can have if fully embraced.  This assumes that the decision was made carefully, based on solid evidence and research, and was deeply needed.

Stages 4-6: More Facilitative Decision-Making

The next three stages are limited decision making authority but begin to invite a more facilitative style of decision-making.

Stage 4: Input Towards Implementation

The decision is made but the people who are implementing it have some latitude in how they will execute it or apply it. 

For example, your organization has decided on the parameters of a program to help people  reduce their energy consumption.  You need your team’s input on when the program will be rolled out, what the communication plan is, which audiences will be targeted for the program first, etc.

Stage 5:  Input on Decision

You have not made the decision yet. The parameters and criteria may or may not have been largely determined. You need many perspectives to determine if the decision is needed at this time. And if yes, what the decision is. 

An example might be your team has just had some culturally insensitive behaviour pointed out to them. You cannot decide whether to radically change a policy that exists because of this new, disturbing behaviour. You can ask the group to review the context for the behaviour and offer potential ways to correct it.  Yet at this level of decision-making, someone else still has the final say in what will be implemented or changed in the policy if anything.

Processes you can use include:  Start with a focused conversation, What is the exact current policy? What was the disturbing behavior? How has the policy been applied in the past? What has gone well with the existing policy? What has not worked so well? Then move into the ToP consensus workshop to brainstorm ideas on, “What are all the things we can consider to improve or change our policy on the topic?”  Then, you might ask the group to prioritize the top 3 suggestions to forward as recommendations to the decision makers.

Stage 6:  Implementation Responsibility

At this level, the decision has been made by some other group and your group is responsible for deciding how to roll out the decision.

An example might be the policy that was being discussed in Point 5 has been adapted and changed and now you are helping the organization adopt it in its new form.

Processes you might use on how you could implement it include: Using the ToP Journey wall technique to look at how important policies have been implemented in the past both in your own and other organizations; ToP Action Planning method to create actions and timeline for rolling out the revised policy.

Stages 7-8: Full Facilitative Process

In these stages you have a lot of latitude in making the decision AND implementing the decision.  This is where you can use the full facilitative process to execute these levels of decision making.

Stage 7: Decision-Making Authority

This is where you get to make the decision. Somebody else will implement the decision (see Stage 6). 

An example of Stage 7 might be that you are responsible for hiring a new leadership position.  Your group will decide the characteristics and qualities needed for this new hire.  You will come up with the right criteria for hiring someone and all aspects related to this position.  Some other group might be responsible for the interviewing process (i.e. Stage 6), however, you will ultimately choose the final candidate based on their recommendations.

Processes you could use: The ToP Consensus workshop method to create a robust list of desired qualities of this new position; simple brainstorm of criteria to use when interviewing candidates; once the final list of candidates have been forwarded, use a decision making criteria matrix to finalize your candidate choice.  Then try using the ToP Focused Conversation method or the Six Thinking Hats method as illustrated by these questions:  What does our criteria matrix tell us? What is your gut reaction to any of these candidates? What are the benefits of hiring each candidate? What are the cautions of hiring each candidate at this time? What conclusion are we coming to for our top choice of candidate? 

Stage 8: Full Responsibility

You will make the decision and implement the decision. 

If we use the example in Stage 7, you will decide to hire someone, you will interview the candidates, and you will decide on the candidate.  Refer to previous stages for processes you could use.  You might use the ToP Consesnsus method to create questions you will use in the interview process.  Categorize your questions in 5-7 key topic areas and then sequence questions in the ORID order.  Use the sticky wall to create a giant matrix of questions.  This will allow you to move questions around to create the best possible flow of the interviews.


For more images and articles related to the Decision Making Ladder, try using these keywords in your search bar: Ladder of Decision Making

Force Field Analysis Tool

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Lawrence Philbrook on July 17, 2019 at 2:55 am

    One of my favorite tools in facilitation and facilitative leadership since it expands the perception of options in decision making and clarifies consequences or impact if the sponsor or facilitator and the group have different expectations or understanding of the practical result in terms of decisional impact.

    Using It creates three opportunities
    first to help people within the system/meeting/event understand the context of the meeting or event – what level of decision making are you being invited into
    Second it helps the sponsor or host understand and articulate the level of decision making they are inviting people into
    Third it helps the facilitator design their process to fit the request or to decline if they feel the opening for facilitation (often at level 1-2) is too small

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