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Using Behavioral Science to Improve Team Dynamics

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Jun 03, 2024

In the fast-paced world of business, understanding and optimizing team dynamics is crucial for success. The Decision Lab embarked on an innovative journey to explore how behavioral science can enhance decision-making processes within teams. Through a unique diagnostic approach, combining a Discrete Choice Survey and an Implicit Association Test, we gained profound insights into the biases affecting project prioritization in team settings. This article summarizes our approach, findings, and recommendations for leveraging behavioral science to improve group dynamics.

Approach

Our two hypotheses going into the analysis were that we could improve team dynamics by (i) minimizing the impact of individual biases in the decision-making process and (ii) ensuring that members are aligned on team goals so that they can all aim for the same target.

Therefore, to help the team we studied (composed of about six analysts, three managers, and one director) improve their decision-making, we analyzed their team dynamics along two different axes. The first axis focused on how each individual team member was affected by cognitive biases. The second axis was focused on understanding if the group was aligned on what their key markers of success were and how they should be prioritized. A clear understanding of these two axes could in turn inform the design of new processes to help the team improve cooperation and alignment.  

Axis 1: Understanding the individual

From running in-depth interviews with the team members, we uncovered three biases that directly impacted each team member: 

  1. Confirmation Bias: The tendency to favor evidence that confirms our existing beliefs. In our workplace context, this manifested as team members wanting to collaborate more with customers whom they had previously collaborated with, especially when positive outcomes were achieved in the past.
  2. Overconfidence Bias: The tendency to over-rely on our own judgments and abilities. In our workplace context, team members showed signs of this bias by prioritizing projects that fell within their realm of expertise or those where they were in charge of the main deliverable. 
  3. Emotional Bias: The tendency to depend on our emotions when making decisions. In our workplace context, this bias became clear when team members preferred customers with whom they already had positive, friendly relationships and found enjoyable to collaborate with. 

To develop adequate interventions, we needed to know how “strong” each of these biases was across the different group members. To do this, we designed and executed a customized Implicit Association Test. This quantitative tool measures subconscious attitudes and beliefs regarding project considerations that might not be readily self-reported due to a response bias

Axis 2: Aligning on key markers of success

To learn how aligned the team was in their priorities and preferences related to the key markers of success, we ran a Discrete Choice Survey. In this type of qualitative assessment, we simulated different project scenarios and asked the team members to state their preferences several times in a row. This aimed to understand how each team member considered project characteristics such as (i) alignment with the team's goals, (ii) past relationship with customers as well as (iii) personal expertise when making their project prioritization decisions.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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Key Findings

For this project, we tackled the process used to prioritize research projects that the team would work on for the following two weeks. 

The team was structured with three workstreams (each with its own dedicated manager): 

  • Customer-facing analysts who managed external relationships and were responsible for identifying the research needs of their customers 
  • Tool developers who maintained the data structure that the team had access to and, if necessary, supported the research project by developing new or adjusting old tools 
  • Learning and community who were responsible for supporting the customer ecosystem (not any particular relationship) by disseminating knowledge and educational resources

Our goal was to design a project prioritization process that was efficient, inclusive, and as free from bias as possible. The results from Axis 1 and 2 yielded the following key learnings.

Strategic Alignment 

The team demonstrated a perceived strong alignment with strategic objectives, with 91% of decisions prioritizing projects closely tied to these goals since the team viewed them as impactful. However, upon a closer look at the nuances of the Discrete Choice Survey, about 30% of these agreements are conditional on the project meeting additional requirements (such as ease of execution, expected overall impact, and clarity of task). 

This points to a deeper effect happening by which even when the team members declare to be “aligned with the strategic objectives,” they will only truly be so if the project complies with additional requirements. This implicitly makes such additional requirements the true deciding factor of their preference.

Influence of Personal and Relationship Factors

The data showed that when personal or relationship factors (such as positive past experiences with a customer or personal expertise on the project topic) were considered, 82% of decisions prioritized projects closely tied to the team’s strategic objectives (down from 91%). This means that personal or relationship factors are, in fact, influencing the priority that the different team members place on the team’s strategic objectives. 

Bias Impact

The Implicit Association Test revealed moderate levels of influence from the three biases across the three workstreams, with the overconfidence bias and the emotional bias showing a positive linear relationship (i.e., a larger influence from the overconfidence bias coincided with a larger influence from the emotional bias). Also, it was interesting to find that team members belonging to the learning and community work stream (the one with the least customer interactions) were consistently less affected by these two biases.

These findings suggest opportunities for us to implement a cohesive teamwork process where all workstreams are given the same weight and voice to aid in bias mitigation.

How do we fix this?

Based on this diagnosis, we designed and piloted a process for prioritizing projects with the following characteristics:

  1. A blind submission form drafted by the team member proposing the project. This form was designed to mask any references to who the customer may be. 
  2. A first independent blind voting session with all team members minus the one who proposed the project. All votes weigh the same to enable the adequate representation of the less biased workstreams. 
  3. An initial review of the voting results where the team member proposing the project can answer any questions or concerns raised in the blind voting form.
  4. A second blind voting session right after all questions and concerns have been addressed. 

This new process was designed to encourage team participation, reduce bias impact, and improve the overall project selection dynamic.

Closing remarks

As with all new processes, changing the project prioritization approach of an established company is a gradual effort. The solution outlined above will take time to be absorbed and will potentially have to be adjusted as the company evolves and the projects become increasingly complex. 

Think of this as building a new habit. As much as we would like to wake up one day and be magically used to eating right, exercising, or reading, this isn’t how reality works. Developing habits is a process that, with time and deliberate effort, yields fruitful results. The same is true with habit building in the workplace; to make more harmonious and value-creating team dynamics a habit, companies need to go through the gradual process of diagnosing the individual challenges, ensuring that the key goals are understood and shared to redesign processes to lead value creation. 
If you find this interesting, don’t hesitate to reach out.

About the Author

Hector Alvarado's portrait

Hector Alvarado

Hector Alvarado is a Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a Masters in Applied Statistics from the University of Oxford, an MBA from INSEAD and a Bachelors in Actuarial Science. He is very interested in applying insights and his past experience to generating meaningful impact for vulnerable populations around the globe. Prior to joining The Decision Lab, Hector worked about 5 years as a Private Equity investor in the Infrastructure Sector in LATAM and over 6 years as a Management Consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. Hector has lead large transformation, growth strategy and integration projects in the Pharma, Consumer Goods and Banking Industries both in North and Latin America.

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