Sometimes I like to go to the movies by myself because I only laugh if I truly find something funny and I might like a story that – were I with others – I might not otherwise like due to my subconscious perception of their reaction.

When we go to the movies with someone, we are swayed by their laughter or their mood, and that in turn colors our experience of what we are watching.

And isn’t that true for most of our group experiences in life?

Those around us often affect our moods, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. So it goes to reason that when we put ourselves into groups and teams in the workplace we will also be affected by the personalities that surround us.

Sometimes, teams gain their strength by being greater than the sum of their individual members. But group dynamics and social influence can cause far more problems than they solve.

Groups, whether they are an executive team or a religious cult, are susceptible to making decisions that none of the individuals involved would have chosen or condoned independently.

When it comes to why smart individuals make dumb group decisions there are four major factors.

1. Overconfidence

There comes a point when healthy confidence dips over the edge into overconfidence:

When we are excessively confident, to a fault, in our own abilities.

Overconfidence breeds arrogance, which can lead to faulty decision-making.

This is dangerous for anyone, but particularly for leaders. If we are so confident in ourselves that we disregard facts and/or insight that would benefit us, then we’re headed down a self-destructive path, and we are taking everyone down with us.

Interestingly, groups do not quell overconfidence; rather, individuals tend to grow more confident in groups.

One way this happens is through our cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias:

our propensity to seek out and weigh only the information that supports our beliefs or decisions.

In a group setting confirmation bias can play out in dangerous ways.

It’s much easier to share information with a group that supports the consensus or the new idea everyone likes. It’s much more difficult to be the “wet blanket” who has information or an opinion that goes against the group momentum.

On a larger scale, confirmation bias can begin with the formation of the group. For example, if I have an exciting but expensive idea for a new marketing campaign, I might not invite the budget-minded CFO for a discussion of my plan.

With a lack of dissenting voices and information, individuals in a group can grow more and more confident in the infallibility of their ideas and make poor decisions.

2. Common Knowledge

New ideas are hard to come by – and accept when brought to the table – but it’s even more difficult to take the risk and share a totally new idea with a group. This is why groups tend to rely on common knowledge when they get together to generate ideas.

It’s much easier to talk about that which you know already than that which you don’t.

Group members prefer to exchange information held in common because they receive more favorable reactions.

If you play it safe and stick to the status quo, you aren’t vulnerable, causing any anxiety, or potentially sounding like an idiot.

If, however, you are the sole member of a group with a new, innovative idea, the odds are against you.

When you present something that is unknown, unseen, and unproven, you can make people psychologically uncomfortable because they have to consider their biases and assumptions, critically think about the issue at hand, and have to decide whether or not they want to change (and people hate to change).

3. Groupthink

In the famous Asch conformity studies, participants are seated at a table with a few other people, whom they believe are fellow participants but are actually actors.

A researcher presents the group with cards like ones pictured below and asks the folks sitting at the table which line, A, B, or C, matches the height of the line on the left. The actors answer first, each going down the line and answering incorrectly, “A”. The participant then has to give his answer.

While the answer is obviously “C”, about 1/3 of people will conform to the actors’ incorrect answer.

Now, you might be thinking: “I would never conform and say the blatantly wrong answer!” However, what if instead of random actors answering the question before you, it was your boss and other members of the upper management at your company? Would you defiantly give your honest answer or would you conform to avoid rocking the boat?

We are social creatures, and our desire to maintain harmony, avoid conflict, and protect feelings can lead to extremely dysfunctional decision-making.

Irving Janis researched the phenomenon in 1972 and proposed that certain characteristics of groups tend to encourage groupthink:

  • Strong group cohesion
  • High levels of stress
  • Strong/directive group leader
  • Insulation from outside opinions
  • Isolations from other groups
  • Lack of norms for evaluating information

Groupthink undermines the long-term viability of the team as bad decisions pile up. The best, productive, and innovative teams will be ones where the members feel safe to speak their minds, throw out ideas, and negate or support one another without the fear of retribution, attack or dirty looks.

Teams should cultivate empathy, respect, and mutual support for all opinions so it is a safe place for risk-taking and expression.

People have different levels of comfort. Some naturally speak up, while others – who may have fantastic ideas – never do. Setting a rule in place to give every person time to talk in the group helps create the norm where everyone’s voice is heard.

It helps people practice who don’t normally speak up have their voice heard; it helps those who always speak up practice listening; and it creates a norm where everyone’s voice is important.

Counteracting the Traps

  1. Establish Group Diversity – Uniformity tends to breed lackluster results. Groups thrive when opinions from different genders, age groups, and ethnicities are welcome.
  2. Define Expectations – Knowing what’s expected of a group can help the group stay on track. Expectations support accountability as well, since the group members can’t deny they didn’t know what the goal was.
  3. Emphasize Collective Awareness – Understanding common group biases helps to keep them at bay. The group should know their weaknesses and how to spot them.
  4. Provide the Right Training – Teamwork training is essential and often overlooked. Team members need to understand how their role fits into the larger group identity and feel comfortable with their position.
  5. Stress Freedom of Thought – Individuals can do their own research and thinking before meeting with the group. Leaders should stress that all ideas are welcome, no matter how far out or strange they might seem.
  6. Insist on Information Sharing – It’s imperative that everyone in a group list all of the information in their possession that relates to an issue. It’s the only way to get the best results.
  7. Promote Innovation – A good leader stimulates people to climb over the mental fence that can keep a group from devising, openly discussing, and adopting new ideas and solutions.
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