Most leaders today are aware of the problem of group-think: when the pressure for group consensus and cohesion overrides individuals’ readiness to speak up, critique a position or express a different opinion. When it occurs in the boardroom it can be a major liability, effectively driving out good decision-making and problem-solving. It can make group members blind to risks, bad ideas and flawed decisions. In my years as a director and facilitator, I have seen it across every type of organisation and sector I’ve worked in.
But before I suggest a range of ways for limiting the effects of group-think, do you recognise the opposite form of group bias? It doesn’t seem to be written about so much or even have a recognised label: I call it ‘hazy-think’. It’s when a group has no defined sense of direction or there is a muddled, incoherent position on an issue with a significant lack of harmony amongst group members. The obvious result for senior teams is that their leadership is seen as weak, ineffectual, and often fractious. In the UK’s political sphere, just think of the state today of PM Theresa May’s leadership on Brexit and the clear disharmony amongst her leading ministers!
In organisations, at board/senior level, the problem of hazy-think applies often with regard to what are the organisation’s key elements of strategic direction: purpose, vision, goals, strategy, operating model and values. Such things may well be written down in a carefully-drafted document approved by the board, but typically if you were to ask in any organisation each member of the top-team to spell out what exactly they understood such elements to be, the chances are there would be some worrying inconsistency or misalignment across the views expressed. It can cause real confusion amongst executive managers in terms of how they should deal with some operating decisions, as they try to read the different signals from board members.
An obvious thought for how leaders can avoid either group-think or hazy-think is to get all members of their team or group altogether and thrash/iron out collectively the issues at hand and define actual consensus in clear detail – backed up ideally by an inspiring leadership style from the leader him/herself and with a readiness, if needed, to invoke sanctions against any team member who ‘steps out of line’ too much.
Of course, leadership get-togethers like this are often best supported by a neutral facilitator: I do a lot of such work. But dealing with the problems of groups really needs a much wider range of measures. So, here are some particular measures I suggest to try and limit the bad effects of group-think, plus a few more actions specifically to deal with its opposite form.
a) The best starting point is to know how to recognise some of the chief signs of group-think, as you can then proceed to plan ways to mitigate its effects. Firstly, look at the composition of the group itself: if the background of group members is very similar or there has been no change in membership for a long period, those are danger signs. So are the following signs in terms of how the group behaves: a very dominant or over-persuasive group leader; group discussion is short, rushed or narrow in terms of alternatives considered or how issues are assessed; some team members avoid speaking at all; some group members criticise or rebuke a colleague for giving a minority view; team members show little concern for contrary facts or views from people outside the group; and the group becomes complacent in thinking any decision it takes must be correct.
b) Value and increase diversity. The more diverse your board/senior team is in terms of its composition, the stronger force you will have against group-think, because diversity sharpens all team members’ thinking as well as producing more varied perspectives. Diversity should, of course, not just be in terms of socio-demographics like gender, age, occupational background and education level but, ideally, wider variables like cultural background, thinking style, ideas and social attitudes. Boards with a mix of executive and non-executive directors should help to boost diversity – but only if the non-execs are recruited from a wider pool than where the executive directors themselves come from!
c) Change and vary dedicated roles on the leadership group. To help vary and widen board members’ thinking, ensure every member has a particular aspect / area of the organisation to focus on or champion (e.g. audit committee or champion for innovation) alongside their general role as a director. However, try to avoid group members retaining any key, specific/allocated roles (e.g. board chair, treasurer, committee chair) for excessively long periods because this can lead to entrenched positions and views and a lack of fresh thinking in those roles. Use fixed term limits for the chair and other senior roles. Rotate certain roles periodically between different group members to widen individuals’ perspectives and experience. Don’t allow the chair to pick his/her own vice-chair and be sure to have board members vote in secret, where needed, for key roles (not simply by raising hands in an open meeting, as I have seen often!). Ensure also new non-execs receive comprehensive induction training to enable them to contribute well in their role.
d) Inform and support board discussions well with hard, objective data. This is an obvious but vital step to reducing group-think. Of course, all decisions involve people using some degree of subjectivity/judgement in the end and using data and analysis brings its own risks of bias like ‘confirmation bias’ (interpreting data in a way that does not upset existing beliefs) and ‘framing bias’ (presenting a string of data in a slanted or false way to create a desired narrative). However, do what you can to bring in as much factual data as possible to the table to guide key decisions: doing so will often disarm individuals who have unfounded, extreme or obviously biased positions.
e) Ensure board members are widely informed & exposed to diverse/external views. To help stimulate wider thinking, management should provide directors with regular briefings and updates about what is happening inside the organisation (e.g. financials, operations, customer research, new product details) and outside (e.g. market trends, competitor news, new technologies). External experts/specialists should be invited to present on key topics at board meetings to help contribute to discussions or reviews of key strategic issues. Directors should meet often with customers and other stakeholders, backing up periodic formal survey research to track stakeholders’ views. Also, look at establishing one or two ‘advisory’ boards/panels – for example, of clients or suppliers – to boost external input and provide for dedicated/extended consultation on issues.
f) Help board members to get to know each other and build team relations. As well as formal board meetings, be sure to provide regular opportunities for members to socialise together and have time to get to know each other well at an individual level. This is vital to help members develop mutual trust, confidence and respect – which in turn will encourage them to speak up and share different ideas and views in board meetings.
g) Define and promote an open ‘team’ ethos/culture for the board. Like for any team, it’s a good idea if board members agree and follow a defined ‘code’ of expected behaviour and practice to guide how they will conduct their meetings and ongoing working relations. This code should stress values like respect for openness, the right to hold different views, regard for new ideas/innovation, as well as guiding how members are to handle differences in opinion, make decisions and resolve conflict when it occurs.
h) Ensure there is a defined process and set of criteria for guiding decision-making. To help avoid group-think, it is vital to have in place an objective, well-defined process for how proposals are to be made, how issues and alternatives are to be evaluated, and how decisions/choices are to be made by the board. For example, it should be defined what minimum background data and risk factors need to be included in proposals and what sort of financial criteria should be applied to assess new investment proposals. Such measures will go a long way to reduce subjectivity and bias in group decision-making.
i) Make use of suitable group-thinking/decision support techniques – to help open-up and structure your team’s discussions and their assessment of ideas/options. Examples of common tools include brainstorming, force-field analysis. six thinking hats, fishbone diagrams, designating one or two individuals to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and the Delphi technique. With any group discussion, though, from my facilitation experience, I would always urge group members – if time allows – first to work alone to think about the issue at hand and then come together for a group discussion: group-thinking actually tends to come up with fewer ideas than individuals working alone, but a group is the best place for then evaluating ideas and converging on an agreed position.
j) Ensure your chair facilitates discussions in a neutral and fair way. This critically includes defining the problem to be discussed at the start in a way that objectively addresses the core issue and avoids any implied type of solution; the chair avoiding giving his/her own opinion on an issue at the start of a discussion or railroading or skewing the debate in a particular way; preventing over-confident individuals from having too much ‘air-time’; and reading people’s non-verbal behaviour during discussions to know when to prompt particular individuals to speak up. A good chair will also hold over a group discussion if he/she can see that not enough ideas or alternatives have been raised or where further data or perspectives are needed to test or confirm positions taken in the meeting. Of course, for discussions that can be expected to be contentious or complex or where the chair lacks facilitation skills or is known to have a strong opinion on the issue at hand, it’s best to ask another board member to act as chair – or use an external facilitator.
k) Promote general bias-consciousness amongst board members. A healthy and effective board will have all members aware of the dangers of biased thinking and biased group decision-making and all will be on the proactive look-out for possible signs during their discussions, so the group can try and limit any serious bias taking effect. Of course, this is a bit idealistic – one can’t prevent politics completely on boards – but it is worth taking action like providing some training on cognitive biases; the chair (with vice chair and/or company secretary) going through meeting agendas in advance to think of any particular biases that might arise for items; and including ‘bias-free’ behaviour in individual directors’ role descriptions and performance reviews. Of course, where non-exec directors are appointed to represent a particular shareholder or stakeholder constituency, expecting them to be fully bias-free is unrealistic: in this case the company needs to rely more on having strong, objective processes and criteria for governing board decision-making.
And finally, how to deal with that notion of ‘hazy-think’ I mentioned – where your top team has no clear or agreed position on an issue or overall direction. Of course, again, the most obvious answer is to get all group members concerned into the same room and thrash out a consensus via a rigorous, well-facilitated discussion (or a number of discussions). And, if necessary the chair must assert his/her position and declare what will be the final position. But here are a few quick, specific suggestions to go with that basic approach:
-Where there is a wide mix of views across group members, it’s essential that everyone is given a full and equal opportunity to express their views and that extra time be afforded for the fullest, open discussion. If necessary, divide up the topic or problem into separate sub-issues and hold a dedicated meeting for each of those topics. For big/complex topics, it can also be a good idea to separate out the stage of thinking of ideas/alternatives from the stage of evaluating/making a choice and planning implementation.
-Don’t worry about not achieving 100% consensus i.e. everyone agrees on everything. Life is not like that! Most group members can live with a group decision they may disagree with partly (or even largely) as long as they feel they have been given a fair chance to input their view and make comment on others’ views.
-As referred to above, make strong use of hard data and evidence to inform your discussions, together with reference to views from relevant outsiders. Neutral, factual information can go a long way to guiding and aligning group members’ final views.
-Ensure your board has a well-considered, balanced/varied topic agenda plan for future board meetings – what company secretaries call a ‘forward’ work-plan – so board members know there will be definite, upcoming slots when particular issues will be discussed. In this way, directors will be less frustrated and contentious because they know they will have dedicated ‘air-time’ in future to give their opinions on topics they are keenest on.
-Ensure your board takes time at regular intervals to look back and assess the soundness of major, past decisions it took. Again, this will help avoid frustration building up amongst individual directors as they can see that the organisation won’t be ‘locked-in’ forever to previous positions.
-Your board chair should ideally have a leadership style that is both inspiring and democratic – meaning he/she is concerned that all team members are listened to but equally he/she has the force of both vision and personality to influence the whole group in the most appropriate direction and limit disharmony.
-Check your company’s senior executive incentives and reward policies are working appropriately to foster co-operative team-working, rather than excessively emphasizing individual director performance.
Altogether, if not dealt with proactively, group-think and what I call ‘hazy-link’ can be serious impediments to sound decision-making on any board. To deal with the two forms of group bias, it’s not adequate simply to make board members aware of such biases and expect them to adapt their behaviour because – as with cognitive biases generally and as I have described in other blog posts here – individuals are so largely unconscious of what drives much of their thinking and behaviour. Rather, organisations need to design-in and require the use by executives of a range of objective decision-making processes and deliberate organisational policies that help mitigate for group bias. I hope the above, specific suggestions are helpful in this regard.
If I can help your board or top-team with a review or improvement of how it deals with group-think and other forms of decision-making bias, do get in touch.
Mike Owen, CEO & Principal Consultant. Owen Morris Strategic Partnership.
T: 01886 881092 E: firstname.lastname@example.org