“Teamwork makes the dream work!” We’ve heard this phrase (ad nauseam) so it can be received with a covert, cynical eye roll because we all know just how difficult it is working on teams. One of the most important teams in any organization is the one charged with creating and communicating the strategy (aka the dream). A strategy articulates how an organization will achieve its growth, financial and profitability objectives, informing where resources will be allocated, and by definition, where they will not. Done effectively, it provides an organization its superordinate goal that ties disparate departmental agendas together.
Everyone wants to believe that the strategy coming from our executive teams are rational, rooted in solid data and thoughtfully crafted as a result of balanced discussions that include diverse points of view. Unfortunately, this nirvana is rarely achieved and it’s not any fault of the individual team members. Social psychology research consistently illustrates that it is the social influences of teams that negatively impact the team’s decisions. 3 common pitfalls to good team decision making are:
We know teams must actively consider all relevant information and perspectives in order to make effective decisions. Research shows that increasing team diversity improves decision making and business outcomes, but ensuring diverse perspectives are shared takes active leadership. Unfortunately, non-majority team members can feel socially inhibited about sharing their relevant insights because of the pressure to “fit in” or conform to the prevailing team consensus. This stress can be further compounded when there is time pressure on the team and if they perceive that other team members are competing with or judging them.
Sharing information that counters the prevailing consensus or contradicts opinions of powerful members of the team means risking rejection or ostracism by the team. And, at work, ostracism is significantly more risky than being excluded from the Red Rover game on the playground. Research has shown that ostracism’s negative impact on an individual is worse than harassment and it is also harder to address both by the individual and the organization because its behaviors are more subtle.
Shared Information Bias
Even if a non-majority team member successfully takes the risk and shares their unique insights, the group may still make a bad decision because they don’t discuss the new information enough. This shared information bias occurs because, in the interest of cohesion, teams spend significantly more time discussing what is familiar to them relative to new insights or data. And, if the new information contradicts the majority team view, the team is even less likely to give the new information its proper weight in their decision making.
This means that in order for your team to truly gain value from diverse inputs, individuals will need to repeatedly risk negative social reactions from the team in order to keep their unique insights on the team’s radar. When you consider that team culture, behaviors and norms exist to protect team cohesion, asking non-majority individuals to continually buck the trend over and over again is an extraordinary expectation.
Even the discussion of contradictory insights or ideas within a team creates a third speed bump to effective team decision making. Idea polarization occurs when teams intensify their commitment to pre-existing beliefs after a discussion of contradictory ideas.
We’ve all heard that lawyers never ask a witness in court any question that they don’t already know the answer to. This level of preparation is consistent with the corporate phenomenon of the “meeting(s) before the meeting”. Especially for important strategy discussions and decisions, participants are likely to come to the discussion with their point of view prepared and their supporters aligned. This approach significantly reduces openness to new or diverse insights during the meeting and increases the likelihood of different factions retreat to their corners and entrench versus move toward each other.
Researchers Mariano and Ariely found that the best decisions came from a consensus of individual thinking into a “robust average”. This requires both the collection of a diversity of individual inputs and the open deliberation of these inputs. Leaders need to be aware of team tendency toward polarization and actively manage the group to ensure effective deliberation of all inputs.
What Leaders Can Do to Mitigate These Common Pitfalls
Too often, leaders fail to recognize the very real social dynamic present in work teams. They focus too much on team cohesion (or what social researchers term entitativity) and miss the very real, very negative impact that groupthink has on effective decision making.
Leaders must recognize that individuals, especially non-majority team members, face real social pressures to sharing their new and/or non-conforming views, so expecting them to “just speak up” is a losing strategy. Instead, leaders must increase their awareness of the dangers and take action to ensure your team’s decision making isn’t compromised:
- Ensure the team is actively soliciting diverse inputs — especially ones that contradict the prevailing view
- Support keeping all relevant information — both new and familiar — on the table to ensure all inputs are appropriately weighted in decision making
- Demonstrate and model openness and be influenced by new information to prevent polarization
And importantly, leaders, if you find yourself thinking, “not on MY team…”, that’s when you need to step up your vigilance.