In very simplistic terms, and strictly from a business perspective, leaders have to perform two main tasks: make decisions, and implements those decisions. There’s usually subjectivity and uncertainty associated with these, making it very hard — if not impossible — to reach to objective, unbiased decisions. This is especially true if there’s only one individual making them.
On the other hand, groups can offer two critical benefits to the quality of the decision making process and its results: more information, and more perspectives. Unfortunately, leveraging groups doesn’t necessarily result in better decisions compared to what their individual members could have achieved. In psychology, this is known as process loss.
The composition problem
When it comes to decision making in groups, there are three sources of process loss, one of them being the composition problem. It has to do with how we form groups and how we seek for information. As the similarity-attraction theory explains, we’re naturally attracted to people that are like us, because it makes us feel more comfortable. This leads us to over-sample similar people when creating groups, making it less likely that the group will actually benefit from different experiences and perspectives.
This is when diversity becomes key. To overcome the composition problem, you need to select diverse decision-making groups. Avoid the usual suspects syndrome, by thinking of who really needs to be part of the discussion, even if they normally disagree with you. Ironically, these are often the people that you are most likely to be able to learn from.
The participation problem
Now you have a diverse group of people with different experiences, background, and information; and you also made sure to select everyone that actually needed to be part of the discussion. That’s great! However, there’s another process loss that you need to avoid in order to get the best out of the group, and that’s the participation problem.
In order to make an informed decision, all members of the group need to be willing to share their information and perspectives. The larger the group, the more diversity, but the less airtime available for each individual to participate. Additionally, groups often have spectators that feel comfortable not deliberating; and even some cultures may be naturally less participative.
To avoid the participation problem, there are a few strategies that can be used:
- Break into smaller groups to increase individual’s airtime
- Start the meeting by getting everyone to talk. This will make them more prone to participate as the meeting progresses
- Look out for spectators, and find ways of making them to willingly participate
- Share in advance the topics that are going to be discussed, to give time to the people that might feel uncomfortable coming up with something to say on the spot
Bonus: The influence problem
One of the reasons to use groups in decision making is to defeat uncertainty. But when in the face of uncertainty, we are easily influenced by others. If you’re the last person to talk in a group discussion, there’s a high chance your discourse was biased and influenced by the information that the other participants shared right before you did. How do we allow everyone to share their information and perspective at the same time?
- Get group members to provide information and perspectives before they know what others think. Try writing before discussing
- Encourage those more susceptible to influence (younger, or less experienced) to talk first — before they know what others think. When there are hierarchic vertical groups, make the people in the lower tiers talk first
- Some people have a hard time disagreeing with others, and they might agree with the group just to avoid confrontation. If necessary, play the role of the devil’s advocate, in order to legitimize disagreement.
Overall, groups offer the promise of more informed decisions by leveraging diversity of information and perspectives not available in a single individual. This promised is fulfilled only when the group avoid process loss by addressing the composition, participation, and influence problems. Be aware of them, and don’t let them hinder your decision-making process.
Based on lessons learned from the course Foundations of Everyday Leadership