By Thomas J. Roach
Decisions Made By Groups Tend To Be Better Than Decisions Made By Individuals.
Some people agree with my uncle who told me committees are people who can do nothing, who gather together to collectively decide nothing can be done.
Others think they can sit down with a workgroup, raise an issue, weigh options, make a decision, and move on. Both are wrong. Nothing involving human beings is this simple.
People attending a meeting are self-consciously aware that they are performing before a group of their peers. Some want to blend in; some want to stand out. Some lack confidence, and some are overconfident. And usually no one wants to contradict the boss.
These are familiar and obvious factors, but the social and psychological influences on people working in groups are incalculable.
In meetings, managing the social issues is a necessary precursor to managing the business issues. One way to start a meeting is for someone other than the person in charge to create the agenda.
This person can send out an email to the group and ask for agenda items. The supervisor can submit items as well, but using this method, all the items that need to be discussed appear on the agenda, not just the ones you already knew about.
Another important issue is leadership bias. The chair needs to hear open discussion before making a decision or calling for a vote, and that requires the appearance of objectivity. “Good idea” and “I agree” are expressions of bonding, but when trying to vet a subject, they tend to close off discussion. When someone has made a strong argument, a better follow-up is to turn to someone else and say, “What do you think?” And if you really want to dig into an issue, when two contrary ideas are spoken, point out the difference and ask the speakers to respond.
Sometimes it is important to move the group in a particular direction. If a group member knows before the meeting that he or she needs to advocate for a specific decision, it is useful to talk to the other members before they get to the meeting and come under the spell of groupthink.
This doesn’t mean calling people and pressuring them to agree with you. A good strategy for building consensus before the meeting is to meet with people individually, raise your concern, and ask them what they think.
Now you hear their ideas without the group social pressures. You may hear something that changes your mind, or you may say something to change the mind of the other person. Either way, you will go into the meeting knowing where you stand.
Private discussions before a meeting are helpful for everyone. If a subordinate disagrees with a supervisor, it is possible to exercise the disagreement privately in a strenuous way that might seem insubordinate if it were done at a meeting.
If the private session ends with the parties agreeing to disagree, the opinion is registered at the meeting and dropped, and the discussion moves on without any damage to the relationship.
An important element of the process is the intent of the participants. If the goal is discovering the best argument, than all parties must be willing to admit they are wrong. If it is merely a battle of egos, then these tactics merely escalate the sophistication of the warfare.
These recommendations are not a set of bylaws that will insure vigorous and fair debate. They can easily be compromised. However, if the intent of the parties involved is to discover the best ideas and act on them, then these recommendations will help good ideas navigate through the social obstacles.
Decisions made by groups tend to be better than decisions made by individuals. But groups can be rational or irrational, so it is wise for all parties to consider the human variables.
Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]