Why groups make bad decisions, and what you can do about it
By Wendy Ann Gentry, Assistant Professor of Instructional Design and Performance Technology (IDPT), Baker University
Instructional designers face many decisions every day – from prioritizing projects to making strategic decisions that impact their clients, institutions, and learners. Limited resources and conflicting data can add to the complexity of the process, making it difficult to choose the best path forward. Although group discussion and decision-making are often thought to lead to better outcomes, research suggests that this is not always the case. In this article, we briefly examine three pitfalls of group decision-making and actionable strategies to mitigate them.
Figure 1. Group Decision Making (from pxhere)
Pitfall One: The Hidden Profile Paradigm
The hidden profile paradigm is the unequal distribution of information among group members in which some information, before the discussion, is shared by all group members, while other information is uniquely known to individual members (Stasser & Titus, 1985). Because group members are more likely to discuss commonly-held details than they are to discuss potentially relevant, private information, decision-making may suffer as a result (Lu et al., 2012).
Pitfall Two: Group Polarization
Group polarization occurs when group members' beliefs and attitudes grow stronger through discussion and result in more extreme decisions than the average position of individual group members (Isenberg, 1986). The desire to make a good impression can cause polarization. To be looked upon more favorably, individuals tend to share arguments consistent with peers and avoid oppositional arguments (Vohs et al., 2005). Another potential cause of polarization is confidence. Group members can become more confident in their position when arguments in support of their beliefs and attitudes are validated and shared by others (Baron et al., 1996). As a result, initial concerns can remain hidden, and decisions can become more extreme as the discussion continues.
Pitfall Three: Groupthink
Groupthink is a group conformity bias where the pressure from peers or leaders to reach consensus takes precedence over the quality of the process (Garvin & Roberto, 2001). Groupthink can limit decision outcomes by generating fewer alternatives and less creative ideas (DeChurch & Mesmer-Magnus, 2010). Peer pressure to "go along with the crowd" may influence group members to endorse the opinions of others, and is more prevalent in newly-formed teams “whose members are still learning the rules and may be less willing to stand out as dissenters” (Garvin & Roberto, 2001, p. 115). Interestingly, the factors that affect the generation of ideas, such as trust, cohesion, and brainstorming, can accentuate groupthink (Larson et al., 1994).
What Can You Do About It?
Following are four strategies that can help you mitigate common biases in group decision-making.
Move from Advocacy to Inquiry
As Garvin and Roberto (2001) explain, an inquiry-based approach leads to more open communication and higher quality decisions. “People engaged in an inquiry process rigorously question proposals and the assumptions they rest on, so conflict may be intense – but it is seldom personal. In fact, because disagreements revolve around and ideas and interpretations rather than entrenched positions, conflict is generally healthy, and team members resolve their differences by applying rules of reason” (Garvin & Roberto, 2001, p. 111). In contrast, when a group takes an advocacy perspective, members compete passionately for their positions; and in doing so often lose their objectivity, often without even realizing it. A simple way to encourage inquiry over advocacy is to ask questions and invite others to do the same.
Embrace Constructive Conflict
To invite different points of view and healthy argument, leaders can ask someone to play the devil’s advocate (Schwenk, 1984). To minimize defensiveness, Garvin and Roberto (2001) recommend that members preface comments or questions with phrases that remove blame, for example, “Your arguments make good sense, but let me play devil’s advocate for a moment” (p. 114).
Share Private Information
Group members more apt to discuss information that is commonly known to the group rather than privately-held information. To encourage group members to share private information, consider asking specific members to serve as experts in their particular domains to support the decision-making process (Stasser & Titus, 2003). Another strategy is to invite people to anonymously write down and share their perceived pros and cons for consideration (Kahneman & Klein, 2010).
Conduct a Premortem
A premortem is a technique in which the group imagines that a course of action has failed and then works backward to identify possible reasons for the failure (Klein, 2007). Imagining problems can strengthen the decision-making process and reduce the waste of limited resources.
This article examines three pitfalls that can undermine group decision-making and strategies to guard against them. While implementing these ideas does not guarantee a great decision, improving the decision-making process will improve your chances of a positive outcome.
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About the Author
Dr. Wendy Ann Gentry is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Design and Performance Technology (IDPT) in the Ed.D. program at Baker University. She also serves the IDPT M.S. Program Coordinator. Wendy has over 20 years of performance systems design, business performance data analysis and learning design experience in domestic and international settings. She earned a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) and Ph.D. in Instructional Design at Virginia Tech.
Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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