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).