My last post suggested that making decisions in diverse teams can help avoid decision-making traps, and there’s research evidence to support this view1. However, team decisions are often no better than individual decisions—and sometimes they’re even worse2. So what’s going on?
Essentially it has to do with the difference between having diversity on a team and managing the team environment and process in a way that enables the group to actually benefit from that diversity.
There are various mechanisms through which biases and poor decision-making can actually be heightened rather than diminished on a team, even a diverse one.
One way is through cascades. If you picture a waterfall, you’ll have a good idea about how a cascade works on a team. Once water starts flowing in a particular direction, downhill or over a cliff, there is little you can do to stop it. Similarly, once ideas, discussion, or decision-making on a team start moving in a particular direction, momentum often keeps them moving in that direction. Even if diverse views exist on the team, they’re unlikely to divert the team’s direction once it’s been set, in part because people are pretty unlikely to voice disagreement with an idea that gets early visible support. There can be two primary reasons for this:
Either way, cascades lead people to self-censor, and when team members are doing that the team doesn’t benefit from their diverse perspectives. Moreover, decisions made by the team end up looking more unanimous than they actually are.
I’ve seen this happen on teams that are dominated by one or two Business Chemistry types, especially the more outspoken types, namely Pioneers or Drivers. They both tend to take charge in group settings and their styles—Pioneers tending toward being energetic and talkative and Drivers tending toward being competitive and direct—mean they’re not likely to sit back and wait to hear others’ thoughts before offering theirs. So a group full of Pioneers and/or Drivers will tend to cascade in the direction they set with their early comments.
You can imagine being a Guardian or an Integrator in this situation. Maybe you’ve even experienced it. Guardians tend to be reserved, to speak and make decisions slowly, and to be non-confrontational. Particularly if they’re a minority in the group, what are the chances they’ll speak up at all or do so early enough in the process to divert the cascade? Likewise, Integrators, too, tend to be non-confrontational, and are also trusting and often focused on gaining consensus. If the group appears early on to be leaning in a particular direction, how likely do you think they are to offer a divergent perspective? Further, knowing that both Guardians and Integrators tend to be risk-averse, they may see very little upside personally, to sticking their neck out.
A second reason diversity on a team may fail to improve its decision-making is because of Hidden Profiles. In groups we tend to focus on information that is shared by many and dismiss information that is exclusively held by a few. The majority tends to rule and the minority becomes virtually invisible (i.e., their differing profiles are hidden). As a result, we often benefit little from unique perspectives that could improve our decision-making.
Again, this problem is most likely to occur on a team dominated by one or two types. For example, a team of Guardians, who tend to be risk-averse and to stick with what’s tried and true, might specifically seek out some Pioneers to help them expand their horizons. But chances are, once those Pioneers have shared their thoughts, the Guardians will nod thoughtfully and revert back to their own perspective, because it’s shared among them and as such will overwhelm the different perspective that’s been offered.
Together, cascades and hidden profiles mean the presence of diversity on a team may not be enough to improve decision-making. That diversity must actually be managed in order to combat decision-making pitfalls. Here are some suggestions for doing so:
Have you seen this kind of thing happening on your own teams? What have you done about it?
1 Phillips, K. (2014). How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. Scientific American.
2 Sunstein, C.R. & Hastie, R. (2014). Making Dumb Groups Smarter. Harvard Business Review.
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