Deciding as a team: when more ends up being less

Making decisions as a team has the advantage of a greater number of perspectives and commitment to execution. But you need to be careful, for groupthink biases can lead to low-quality decisions.

The meeting was about to begin, and decisions would define the launch of a new product. There were two alternatives to decide between.

The New Products Manager presented the alternatives to the team and concluded by saying: ‘While both alternatives have the same market potential, I believe the first one is more in line with our product range’.

‘That’s true’, said a team member. ‘It is essential to be consistent, true to our lines. This proves we can offer new choices while maintaining our focus’.

‘I agree’, said another one. ‘It might increase the prestige of our brand, and further build customer loyalty’.

Each member shared their views, supporting the Manager’s position. The meeting ended with a unanimous decision. ‘It’s so good all of us share the same point of view’, thought the Manager, and felt relieved.

At first sight, this might sound as a team decision. However, if we look closely, we will find a series of biases, typical of group thinking, affecting the process.

Waterfall effect

In their book ‘Wiser, Getting Beyond Groupthink’, authors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie mention the waterfall effect as one of the most common pathologies in team decision-making process. This happens when the final decision comes down to who spoke first. The more so if the first speaker is the boss.

The first one to speak starts a cascading effect, and then the members of the team will support that view. The greater the number of those in favor of that alternative, the less likely is the chance of anyone speaking against it or offering a different perspective.

Each statement will strengthen the progress towards consensus, instead of pointing out difficulties and opening a space for debate. Therefore, in order to take advantage of the information from each team member, we must ensure that the cascade effect is not operating in the room.

Hidden profiles

Hidden profiles come out to light when members do not share the information they possess. This happens whenever the conversation goes in another direction, inhibiting individuals from contributing.

Hidden profiles are the result of the common knowledge effect, whereby information that is known to all members of the group has more influence and place in the discussion than information that is in the hands of only a few, however valuable it may be. Whenever that happens it is usually worse for the group than for individuals in decision-making processes.

The challenge lies in generating mechanisms that allow each member to have their own space and motivation to share information during the decision-making process.

Polarization of Opinions

One consequence of the cascade effect, Sunstein and Hastie note, is the polarization of opinions. For example, if members start out with a certain willingness to engage in risky behavior as a result of group dynamics, even more risky behavior is often the result of discussion.

Debate might cause groups and individuals to become more extremes. Once the debate is over, each individual might be more radicalized than before. So, being objective and calm might avoid the heat of a discussion to become the main point.

Mistakes are amplified

Groups are not immune to the pitfalls individual minds will confront. On the contrary, these may become more serious. As most of the members make a mistake, all other members might take it as a confirmation that they are on the right track.

In a series of experiments conducted by Solomon Asch that involved posing a question to a group of accomplices and an individual to experiment on, it was proved that the individual under study would give the wrong answer if the group did so, for his reasoning was biased by the answer of the group of accomplices.

In the same way, whenever an argument is supported by a number of members, even if wrong, it is more likely to be confirmed by the rest rather than questioned and the error detected.

Summarizing: group decision-making poses difficulties. The way in which the process is guided and managed is essential.

Generating alternatives is a fundamental element in this process. This step is more effective in a team than it is when talking individually.

Group decision-making may also expand the ability to analyze a situation and how to manage uncertainty. The greater the diversity of group members, the bigger the known universe, and the less space there will be for uncertainty.

A decision taken as a team will have a much greater commitment to action by its members than a decision taken unilaterally.

The active role of the leader to detect group bias and generate instruments to eliminate bias lies in giving each one their time and space to share their views. That is the key to fostering the advantage of reaching a decision made as a team.

Daniela Olstein
Manager at Tandem.

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