*No one believes, but everyone thinks that everyone believes…

It is almost an implicit assumption that teams can make better decisions and perform tasks better than individuals can. This is true in certain circumstances and for certain decisions and tasks – but not always.

For one, there are the group-based biases such as, groupthink and group polarization (more on these in a future post) that lead to poor decisions. There are a number of ways to minimize these biases, but this is not what I’d like to write about this time.

Rather, I would like to focus on the factors that influence individual decision-making within groups/teams. In other words, how do we, as individuals, end up contributing to poor decision-making when we are part of a group.

The following scenarios are probably familiar for some: You are in a meeting. The team leader is proposing a deadline that is highly unrealistic, and you observe all your colleagues nodding in unison. Or, the CEO is suggesting a strategy with a few serious flaws with such conviction that no one from the executive team raises any concerns.

What do you do in situations like these? Do you join the majority and commit to an unrealistic deadline, or give your support to a flawed strategy? Or, do you raise your concerns? Whatever your answer may be, here are a few questions to reflect on:

  1. What is crossing your mind as you observe the reactions of others? Do you think „I must be the only one who thinks like that“ or „What am I missing here?“? Or, do you think „It can’t be that I am the only one who sees a problem here!“?
  2. What is your preferred style in dealing with disagreement or conflict? Are you comfortable with confrontation, or would you rather avoid confrontation and conflict?

For the first question if you think that you’re the only one with concerns, it is highly likely that you’re being a victim of the bias „pluralistic ignorance“. That is, you assume (incorrectly) that everyone else in the group accepts the situation, where actually quite a few others privately question it too. It is „pluralistic“ because you’re not the only one who makes that assumption. To the extend that no one speaks up, this tendency perpetuates group members‘ reluctance to express their disagreements and leads to suboptimal decisions. So what would be a better approach?

  • Act with the assumption that you are not the only one who has concerns or questions. Observe people in meetings and you’ll notice when others are confused or not agreeing with the message. Remember the times when others „piggy-backed“ with their questions/objections once a concern has been raised.
  • Ask people in private after the meeting if they indeed had no questions or concerns.  They are more likely to express their real thoughts outside the group situation. This gives you a good reason to speak up next time.
  • Trust your instincts. If you are convinced that something is not clear or questionable, it probably is.
  • Think of the costs of going ahead with a poor decision and take responsibility to point out to flaws.

Coming to the second question. It is absolutely crucial that you are aware of your preferred or habitual style when it comes to confrontation and conflict. For most people these two terms have somewhat negative connotations. But both are indispensable for effective decision-making.

  • Explore your default style in dealing with situations that involve confrontation or conflict by paying attention to both your thoughts and emotional reactions.
  • If you consistently associate confrontation and conflict with negativity, trace back the roots of this connection (e.g., family, close-relationships, a boss in your early career, organizational culture etc.,).
  • Consider taking a different perspective: Confrontation and conflict – when dealt with effectively – clear the air, reveal misunderstandings, and consequently lead to better decisions.

As a team member you can contribute to the decision-making process if you consider and apply the above points. As a leader you can, and should encourage your team to be aware of these biases and tendencies if you would like to come up with optimal decisions.

„You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note“ ~ Doug Floyd

*Krech & Crutchfield (1948). Theory and Problems of Social Psychology.

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