How One Person Can Stop a Collective Mistake

Groups make mistakes for a variety of reasons. Fixing the problem often starts with the person leading the group.

Have you considered being quiet for once?

I don’t mean the question rudely. It’s understandable that as somebody in a leadership role, you have a duty to speak—people are looking for guidance, and you’re in your job to provide it. But when you speak and how you provide that guidance can make a difference between running a team that succeeds and running a team aground.

“Leaders often promote self-censorship by expressing their own views early.”

That’s the takeaway, at least, from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. It’s titled “Making Dumb Groups Smarter,” which somewhat mischaracterizes their argument. It’s not that you’ve made the mistake of hiring or working with dumb people. It’s just that the peculiar dynamics of group work often leads to dumb decisions.

How so? Let Sunstein and Hastie count the ways (and feel free to count along as you recall your own grim memories). Groups underestimate how much time and resources a project will require; they’re overly confident in what their work will accomplish; they reach for the most popular ideas, not the most effective or relevant ones; they assume (globalizing associations take note) that “things or events or people that are similar in one way are similar in other ways too”; they stick with bad ideas because they’ve been working on them for so long.

So many group activities, so many ways to screw them up. But Sunstein and Hastie’s article isn’t simply a guilt-inducing overview of the pitfalls of collaboration. It’s a study of the particular ways that people are subtly pushed into making poor decisions. (Sunstein, a former White House staff and legal scholar, has some expertise on this point as a coauthor of the popular 2010 pop-psychology and business book Nudge.) Because so many groups make decisions based on how they’re guided, they argue, the person providing the guidance merits extra scrutiny. “Many groups end up thinking that their ultimate convergence on a shared view was inevitable,” they write. “Beware of that thought. The convergence may well be an artifact of who was the first to speak.”

Which is where you come in. Or, rather, it’s where you step aside for a moment.

Every organization, like it or not, is a political one, they write—there are things that can and can’t be openly said and ideas that can only be promoted with higher-level approval. And the leader of the group, simply by expressing his or her thoughts, is making a statement about what lines of discussion are acceptable. So, to the extent that you want an open and free discussion on an issue—and maybe you don’t, but that’s a different blog post—step back.

“Leaders often promote self-censorship by expressing their own views early, thus discouraging disagreement,” they write. “Leaders and high-status members can do groups a big service by indicating a willingness and a desire to hear uniquely held information. They can also refuse to take a firm position at the outset and in that way make space for more information to emerge.” (There’s a diversity angle to this point, they note: Studies show that women and blacks, for instance, are more likely to self-censor in groups.)

Sunstein and Hastie have a few additional tips in their article about ways to avoid groupthink in group decision making. But one important point that’s left unspoken in the piece (though they do tacitly suggest it) is that leaders need to come to terms with the amount of trust they have in their groups. Often that trust isn’t there: As Kristin Clarke wrote in Associations Now in 2012, many CEOs corral senior management teams only to present their hard decision-making tasks to a “kitchen cabinet” of trusted advisors who don’t reside on the top tiers of the org chart—or on the org chart at all.

“CEOs who use a kitchen cabinet for key decisions are simply asking for dissent within the staff,” said one association executive quoted in the piece. “I see this as a great way to demoralize those who serve as senior management.” True. You’ve assembled a team to make decisions; your duty is to make sure they’re feeling confident and empowered enough to make good ones.

What do you do to facilitate group collaboration without lapsing into groupthink? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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