There’s a decision to be made and you need the input of your executive team. You have the option of just emailing them and asking for their opinion or calling them together for a quick meeting to discuss the issue and reach a decision. What would you do? Many experts suggest that the best course of action is to “talk the problem through” or “share ideas in an open and honest setting” to reach the best decision.
While each member of the team is likely to have an opinion on the best course of action, bringing them together will allow them to bounce ideas off each other and share their views, resulting in a better decision, right? Wrong. Research looking at how deliberations affect group decisions is showing that the decision reached by a group is no better (and sometimes worse) than the decision reached by simply averaging the separate responses of the members without any deliberation. Even when asked to make predictions about some outcome, the average of the separate responses was as good as, or better than, the prediction based on an extended deliberation of the factors affecting the outcome.
When we resort to deliberating information, we open the process to numerous biases driven by the social pressures created in open group settings. While it is true that deliberations help group members move towards a consensus, the problem is that this consensus is not always for the best solution. In a recent paper by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie of the University of Chicago, the failure of decisions reached by deliberation is attributed to several biases that afflict groups.
In an earlier column, we had discussed the “overconfidence bias” that makes people more confident about their estimates than is objectively warranted. Interestingly, the overconfidence in the predictions made by a group after deliberation is even higher. After deliberating, the group becomes surer about its decision even though deliberations do not add to the group’s decision-making accuracy.
Further, social pressures within group deliberations result in the activation of other biases that diminish the quality of group decisions. Imagine being in a meeting where you have concerns about the likely success of a plan being discussed. The five other executives in the room are excited and optimistic about the plan. How do you bring up your concerns without being branded a wet blanket? Rather than being a forum for a free sharing of ideas, group deliberations tend to self-censor members’ opinions, causing the group to think that everyone agrees when they don’t. Further, because of the “availability bias” (discussed in a previous column), the group estimate is based more on the information that is shared rather than on all the information that group members have but choose not to share at the meeting.
In a group setting, if the majority are doing or saying something wrong, it actually becomes harder to resist the flow of the group and present counter-evidence. The social impact of group deliberations is evident in the research showing order effects at group meetings. That is, the first person to speak at a meeting has a more powerful influence on the path of opinions expressed at the meeting than is warranted. People tend to want to add their opinions to the views already expressed rather than completely contradict what has already been said. As a result, counter-opinions tend to be couched in weaker terms when expressed later than when expressed first. The group deliberations tend to cascade from the initially expressed opinion.
Finally, group deliberations often result in more extreme positions. That is, after sharing ideas and reaching a decision that is influenced by all the social factors, individual members of the group leave the deliberations with more extreme positions that may negatively affect future decisions related to the topic of discussion. The deliberations may actually result in valuable counter-opinions on an issue disappearing altogether.
So the next time you are tempted to call a meeting to deliberate some perplexing issue, try putting the phone down and simply asking individual members of the group to just email you their opinions privately. It will save everyone a lot of time and may just be as productive as an hour-long meeting.
Praveen Aggarwal is an associate professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business & Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Rajiv Vaidyanathan is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programmes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
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