Individuals often make bad decisions. We buy things we don’t need. We eat things we know we shouldn’t. So at work, we often get together to share decision-making, in the hope that since two heads are better than one, many heads should make great decisions.

But the research shows that groups often make worse decisions than their individual members! (See Reid Hastie and Cass Sunstein’s book, Wiser.)

‘Groupthink’ is the technical name for this phenomenon – the dysfunctional decision-making of a group of people deliberating together. You have groupthink when the value of the group is less than the sum of its parts.

Research has highlighted four specific varieties of groupthink:

  • Groups don’t just fail to correct members’ mistakes, they amplify them
  • Group members tend to follow those who speak first: the ‘cascade effect’
  • Groups tend to become more polarised and extreme than their individual members
  • Groups focus on what everyone knows and miss out on information that may be held by only one member.

Here are five proven strategies to counteract groupthink in a meeting:

  1. Listen to, and acknowledge, what people say. Use their words!
  2. Make sure everyone speaks early in a meeting
  3. Leaders speak last!
  4. Invite difference. Separate divergent and convergent phases of discussion.
  5. Ask lots of non-judgemental questions to tease out different opinions and uniquely-held knowledge.

How does all of this relate to remote meetings? The truth is that the way people typically behave in remote meetings can make groupthink worse – even when people think they are ‘doing the right thing’.

For example, people tend to want to make online meetings as short as possible. That’s efficient, right?

Well, no. Looking through a groupthink lens, the quickest way to finish a meeting with ‘agreement’ is for the leader to speak first, invite clarifying questions, then everyone agrees with him and the meeting ends. In fact, why bother to have a meeting at all? The leader could just send an email.

This information-update is the very lowest level of conversation. It has its place, but it’s not conducive to effective joint decision-making.

Technology used to restrict our ability to have more sophisticated, creative, collaborative conversations remotely, but that’s not the case nowadays. Almost all our best facilitation techniques, such as Liberating Structures, can work when you use a good-quality video-conferencing platform such as Zoom. Breakout rooms, for example, allow for the separation of divergent discussions.

So the strategies above can all help you reduce groupthink in online meetings – as long as you actually use them.

What needs to happen to upgrade your online conversations?

  • Want to learn more? Are you a facilitator, trainer or coach? Join me for an exclusive one-day workshop in Arlington, Mass., USA in October. Click here for details>>>

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