Group Decision Making: How to Be Effective and Efficient

Undoubtedly, if you have ever read about group decision making, you have come across a concept known as “groupthink”.  The term “groupthink” was coined by Irving Janis in his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  He used events in foreign policy to examine our tendency to arrive at less than ideal group decisions.

The main cause? A failure to think critically in a group setting is fueled by our desire to conform to a majority and our hesitation to re-evaluate initially rejected solutions. Decisions, in this case, happen too quickly without proper analysis. The anecdote?  Encourage every member to critically evaluate and voice concerns, encourage dissension, and as a leader, remain humble and open to criticism.

Yet, as many higher education professionals can surely attest to, I have also witnessed the other challenge in group decision making.  In academia, engaging in critical dissent is encouraged (reviewed by Jetten & Hornsey, 2014), and while this is a fine attribute, practically, this can mean that we sometimes spend so much time expressing our thoughts, opinions, and concerns trying to reach consensus and we somehow never arrive at decisions in a timely manner.

Groups can thus hinder the ability to make decisions efficiently and effectively. But the reality is, we are often working in groups in today’s world.  Interestingly, the research suggests that as employees, our time in meetings has increased over the years, and that ineffective meetings are associated with reduced well-being (Rogelberg et al., 2006).  In other words, in 2019, we are spending more time in meetings that we used to, and ineffective meetings can make us miserable at work and waste our time. 

So, how can we balance both the desire to avoid groupthink, but also a desire for effective group decision-making in meetings?

Here a few principles that may help:

1. What is the point of this meeting?

I recently went to a meeting where we debated the food menu for an event.  Was my opinion really needed?  Truth be told, you put ten professors in a room and debate what napkins to use, and that could take an hour.  Not every decision requires a meeting.  Figure out first why you need a meeting.  Is this meeting to brainstorm, is it to narrow down options, to share data, or to create a solution? Are you looking for advice? Feedback? Or a group decision? Make these expectations clear to those attending. 

For example, let’s say you do want to figure out what color napkins to use at the event.  Maybe you, as the leader, remain the decision-maker and you say “I’m looking for your thoughts on napkin color”.  Allow everyone to talk and respect all answers.  And then say “thank you for your feedback.  I will take it under advisement.” 

If alternatively, you would like to decide collectively on the napkin color, you could see if you can arrive at a consensus, and if not, narrow choices down and vote.

2. What is the problem?

To make decisions as a group, the problems must first be clarified.  In a meeting focused on problem-solving, be sure to agree on a definition of the problem before talking about potential solutions (Rogelberg, Scott, & Kello, 2007). 

For example, “People have formally complained in the past that our napkin colors drastically detract from the event.  Therefore, we are meeting to determine how to improve this situation.”

3. Avoid groupthink.

Groupthink suppresses dissent.  One area where the importance of dissent has been highlighted is in healthcare, a field where interpersonal communication has been labeled as the cause for over 60% of medical errors and 12 billion dollars wasted in U.S. hospitals (Agarwal, Sands, Díaz, Schneider & Smaltz, 2010). Maxfield, Grenny, McMillan, Patterson, and Switzler (2005) reported that less than 1 in 10 healthcare providers spoke up when they saw something potentially harmful.  Why did both the majority of physicians and nurses not speak up when they witness incompetence?  Maxfield et al. (2005) reported the following prototypical responses: “There wasn’t a time or opportunity,” “It’s not my role,” “I’ve seen them get angry,” and “I thought they would retaliate.”

As a leader, in any organization, how do we avoid a tendency for others not to speak up?  Make sure everyone is heard.  Allow the time without repercussions for dissent. Ask open-ended questions that encourage critical thinking such as, “what would be the downsides of Option X that Dr. Michael just suggested?” “Are there any implications we haven’t thought of if we switch napkin color?” “Are there any other possibilities we could consider?” “Can anyone play devil’s advocate for a moment on this issue?” and finally “Does everyone feel comfortable if we move in this direction?” 

And here’s some good news–encouraging participation in a meeting is significantly and positively correlated with both attendee satisfaction and attendee perception of meeting productivity (Malouff, Calic, McGrory, Murrell & Schutte, 2012)

4. Have a leader who leads.

While everyone should feel comfortable talking, someone must lead.  Too often I have watched meetings end with “okay, well…we are out of time, so let’s continue this next time.” Or “let’s chew on this” or “let’s table this” or “well, there’s a lot here, so…..” (the sentence doesn’t even get completed as they look to the others for a direction).


The AI Governance Challenge

A leader needs to watch the time and not waste the point of the meeting.  Satisfaction with a meeting and perception of meeting productivity are significantly and positively related to leaders being able to move a meeting along and encourage decision making (Malouff et al., 2012).

Leave time to review accomplishments and make a decision.  The decisions might be “we need more information, so Dr. Kay and Dr. Hu have agreed to send us the reports” or “let’s make a draft based on our ideas to review for next meeting” or “Jamie will take care of X while Morgan will do Y” or even “now that we have considered the consequences of using napkins, let’s focus on entirely new ideas like personal air dryers”.  One way or the other, be proactive at the end of a meeting.  Summarize the accomplishments or views, make decisions, and delegate tasks clearly.  In one study, leaders taking the time to summarize decisions led to greater participant satisfaction and perception of meeting effectiveness (Malouff et al., 2012).

Group decision-making, when poorly led, can amplify individual decision-making mistakes.  In other words, we can become stupider in groups.  On the other hand, if a leader wisely leads by creating an environment where different perspectives are heard and valued, a group can become wiser than any of its individuals (Sunstein & Hastie, 2015).  The individual must understand their role is to add new information, and not to please anyone. The leader must understand that their role is to create an environment where problems are clarified, dissent is valued, and tasks and future directions are clearly distributed.


Agarwal R., Sands, D.Z., & Schneider, J.D. (2010). Quantifying the economic impact of communication inefficiencies in US hospitals. Journal of Healthcare Management55(4), 265-282.

Jetten, J., & Hornsey, M. J. (2014). Deviance and dissent in groups. Annual Review of Psychology65, 461-485.

Malouff, J. M., Calic, A., McGrory, C. M., Murrell, R. L., & Schutte, N. S. (2012). Evidence for a needs-based model of organizational-meeting leadership. Current Psychology31(1), 35-48.

Maxfield D., Grenny J., McMillan R., Patterson K., & Switzler A. (2005). Silence kills: Seven crucial conversations for healthcare. Vital Smarts Retrieved from:

Rogelberg, S.G., Scott, C., & Kello, J. (2007). The science and fiction of meetings. MIT Sloan Managementt Review. Retrieved from:

Sunstein, C. R., & Hastie, R. (2015). Wiser: Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter. Harvard Business Press.

Bringing Behavioral Insights to Scale in the United Nations

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Designing people-centered policies and programmes

To meet the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the global development community needs to accelerate work towards the transformations of economic and social systems, and design and test bold policies, and invest in innovation. However, despite the best of intentions, what we often forget is that as humans we all have bounded rationality and biases that influence the way we make decisions. For instance, if we are to collectively achieve Agenda 2030, all actors need to take a human-centric and experimental approach in designing policy interventions that account for how people make decisions in their daily lives. 

Enter behavioral insights (BI), a field that draws on research from psychology, economics, sociology, and neuroscience to generate insights about why people make the choices they do. Behavioral insights already help governments and international organizations design people-centered policies and programs that take into account the psychology of decision-making.

Over the past few years, behavioral science has gained momentum as an important tool in policymakers’ toolkit. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the U.S and other governments around the world have created dedicated teams of behavioral scientists to address policy challenges and maximize impact. UNDP, UNICEF, and other UN agencies have already invested in proof-of-concept initiatives and published their findings in reports such as Behavioral Insights at the United Nations, co-produced by the UN Secretariat, the UN Behavioral Insights Initiative and UNDP; and ‘Consuming Differently, Consuming Sustainably: Behavioral Insights for Policy-Making’, co-produced by UN Environment and Ideas 42. UNICEF recently published the ‘Human-Centered Field Guide for Investigating and Responding to Challenges’, providing practical advice on adopting a behavioral design approach, and is currently developing an organizational strategy to strengthen local capacities on BI.  

As another step in introducing new ways of working in the global development agenda, UNICEF Communication for Development (C4D) Section, Programme Division and UNICEF Office of Innovation, in partnership with UNDP, co-hosted a UN General Assembly side event to discuss the potential and future of behavioral insights. Entitled ‘Experimentation and Behavior Change for the SDGs: Bringing Behavioral Insights to Scale’, the event featured a keynote lecture by Professor Cass Sunstein. Prof. Sunstein is a co-author of ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’ as well as Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. Sunstein has advised several governments in embedding behavioral insights in their policy-making processes. 

© J.Gauthier – Abdoulaye Mar Dieye – Director, Bureau for Policy Programme Support. UNDP

In their welcoming remarks Cynthia McCaffrey, Director, UNICEF Office of Innovation and Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Director, Bureau for Policy Programmes Support, UNDP, highlighted the importance of this.

“We are always looking for innovative approaches and tools to foster social and behavior change. BI is one of the newest tools that we have started to look at, particularly through its integration in communication for development interventions,” said McCaffrey during her opening.

“Partnerships with governments and local academia is the cornerstone of how UNICEF works. In this context, we have just begun exploring the type of capacity development needs in-house to see how BI could be used to achieve our corporate results; and with partners, as part of our local capacity development efforts on accelerating evidence-informed social and behavior change,” she adds. 

“Behavioral Insights in the development context can be understood as a two-pillar approach. The first pillar consists of investing in context-specific behavioral drivers and barriers, while leveraging insights from behavioral science. The second pillar entails designing experiments that are based on rigorous monitoring and evaluation systems”, said UNDP’s Mar Dieye. 

“For the past four years, we invested in a portfolio of country-based experiments, with the generous support of the Government of Denmark. We designed and scaled behaviorally-informed interventions to address environmental protection in China and Mongolia, to address gender-based violence in Egypt, Georgia, and South Africa, to increase tax compliance in Moldova and Armenia and to improve our cash-transfer system to poor households in Bangladesh – to name a few.”

During Prof. Sunstein’s keynote lecture, the fundamentals of the innovative BI approach were introduced, and examples of their practical applications were presented to illustrate how BI application can benefit programme designers and implementers. The key message: our choices are heavily influenced by cognitive biases and heuristics as well as the choice architectures that frame decision-making. How to design the architecture for decision-making and bridging intention to action was one of the key questions of the first collaboration between UNDP and the UK Behavioural Insights Team, starting in 2013. In Moldova, many adults treated for tuberculosis stop taking their medication and relapse, negatively impacting the individual’s health and the national economy. One of the main barriers was that people had to make a mandatory visit to a clinic to take the drugs in the presence of a doctor: a friction cost. Results from a randomized control trial indicate that twice as many patients follow through with treatment if allowed to take medication at home while connected to a doctor or nurse through their phone camera – 87 percent compared to 43 percent in the control group.


The AI Governance Challenge

A panel discussion followed where panelists examined why the BI approach matters for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and how new ways of working can be introduced in the UN Development System.

© J.Gauthier – Keynote speaker Prof. Cass Sunstein, Founder and Director, Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy, Harvard Law School (second from right) stands with panelists (L-R) Malika Bhandarkar, Innovation Facility Global Coordinator and Fund Manager, UNDP; Rafael Obregon, UNICEF Chief C4D; Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Director, Bureau for Policy Programmes Support, UNDP; and moderator Alexandra De Filippo, Principal Advisor at Behavioural Insights Team North America. ©UNICEF/J.Gauthier. Not in photo: Panelist Benjamin Kumpf, Policy Specialist, Innovation, Development Impact Group, UNDP.

The discussions explored how to institutionalize new ways of working and making behaviourally-informed approaches the new normal in the UN Development System. “The greatest potential for behavioural insights to have positive impact is in the reduction of poverty,” Sunstein says, “All over the world, people are suffering from severe deprivation. The public and private sectors could do much more to help. Making it easier for people to obtain access to help-educational opportunities, employment, medical care, food, even clean water – could do so much to improve people’s lives. Better choice architecture could make all the difference.”