Beware the perils of groupthink, yet meetings can still be useful

Meetings can devolve into lemming-like groupthink if not well led. Blind leading blind from www.shutterstock.com

Everyone has had bad experiences in meetings at work.

Perhaps you’ve been subjected to weekly or even daily “feed-forward” briefings in which someone one pay-grade higher insists on reviewing information that everyone could much more efficiently receive in another form.

Or there is the “clueless session,” in which someone who is supposed to solve a problem on his or her own, but hasn’t, calls a meeting instead. The aim is usually to get someone else to think up an easy solution or, absent a good solution, to dodge the responsibility for not solving the problem in the first place by attributing it to “the group.”

Behavioral scientists have seized on this “meeting malaise” and captured attention by bashing these office gatherings and face-to-face teamwork in general. But not all meetings are pointless – and face-to-face dealings are indeed essential for certain types of decision making.

Research I conducted with Cass Sunstein showed that leaders play a pivotal role in determining whether meetings lead to solutions or are hijacked by the tendency for “groupthink.” We’ve highlighted several techniques managers can follow to bring out the best in their groups.

How meetings got a bad rap

The late research psychologist Irving Janis popularized the concept of how meetings can result in “groupthink,” or the tendency of members of a group to over-conform to a bullying or charismatic leader. This leads to faulty decisions as participants’ mental efficiency and moral judgment deteriorate, he argued.

More recently New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki has promoted the value of collective intelligence methods using advanced software to replace the need for meetings and other face-to-face encounters. These include prediction markets (betting on outcomes), online tournaments (to pick winning ideas) and even just taking statistical averages. He suggests such methods bring out the “Wisdom of Crowds” idea he coined, without the pitfalls of groupthink.

The message from these pundits is that we should avoid traditional social teamwork and that non-social aggregation methods can perform many of the tasks that we used to perform with face-to-face teamwork. University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Scott Armstrong takes the implications of these essays to the extreme in a provocative paper sub-titled, “Avoid Face-To-Face Meetings.”

Sunstein and I believe that there is value in rethinking the necessity of some meetings, such as pointless feed-forward meetings or clueless problem-solving sessions, but other types of interactions still hold value. Getting the balance just right is the tricky part. In a recent book we co-authored, “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter,” we extend and refine the catalog of group failures and biases that was started by Janis, Surowiecki and others, while identifying areas where they got it wrong.

Biases and bad habits

It turns out, of course, that traditional groups exacerbate some individual judgment and decision biases. Examples include the planning fallacy, in which people underestimate how much time will be needed to complete a task, and the sunk costs fallacy, irrationally investing more in a project because so much has been put into it already, when it would be better to just let it go.

And, like Surowiecki and Armstrong, we are enthusiastic about exploring innovative alternatives to traditional face-to-face procedures, like prediction markets, tournaments and the Delphi Method (a type of forecasting that relies on a panel of experts).

But groups also cure some individual bad habits. Among these are anchoring (a tendency to rely on the first piece of evidence offered), availability (overestimating unlikely events) and some forms of narrow framing. And we believe that the Surowiecki and Armstrong advice can be over-generalized, especially when a group is producing more than a focused forecast or estimate.

You may be able to produce an excellent forecast of the Oscar winners by using a prediction market or a even simple “central tendency statistic.” But you are not going to produce a film that might win an Oscar without extensive face-to-face teamwork. And most of the collective tasks performed in industry (and in other organizations) are more like creating an Oscar-worthy movie than forecasting the winners at the Academy Awards.

The pivotal role of leaders

This is where the important role of leaders come into play, to prevent groupthink and bring out the best in their employees. Our research has led us to techniques that a manager can use to work more effectively in traditional face-to-face teams. Our most important advice is aimed at the leadership role.

We like leaders who are “anxious” and self-critical. We like managers who “lead from behind” by constantly seeking unshared information and who nudge team members to express constructive dissent.

We note that most problem-solving processes can be broken down into three stages: generating candidate solutions, selecting the best solution and then implementing that solution. Then we prescribe somewhat different methods to make each stage most productive; along with the advice to separate the stages from one another.

For example, it is a common mistake to mix up the solution-generation process and the solution-selection process. Shifting too soon to a critical “selection” frame of mind can stifle the effort to generate solutions. Another mistake is to promote optimism and overconfidence, attitudes that make the later implementation stage work well but are unhelpful earlier in the process when a cold, objective view is needed during.

When are meetings necessary?

When sitting in a pointless, boring meeting, it may be pleasant to imagine an organization without such sessions. So, a first piece of good advice is to ask yourself, “do we need a meeting or a face-to-face team to solve this problem?” If the answer is “no,” then by all means use an alternative method like a statistical decision rule or tournament.

But the fact is that the answer will frequently be “yes.” Meetings and other forms of face-to-face teamwork are simply necessary to solve many tasks. So, let’s try to be wiser and learn to work most effectively in teams, when teamwork is necessary.