Group Decision Making
The received wisdom is that group decision-making is generally better than individual decision-making. The thinking behind this is that group have more input, more information and more perspectives to draw upon—and should therefore make better decisions. However, this is not always true.
People often behave differently in groups, because of how they are perceived (or wish to be perceived) by the group, and how they perceive their role within the group. These behaviours tend to be particularly important in group decision-making. This sounds relatively minor, but actually affects almost every aspect of how a group functions, from how its meetings are organised, through to behaviour during and outside meetings.
This page discusses how groups make decisions, and how you can improve group decision-making.
Problems with Group Decision-Making
A group can be seen as both a collection of individuals and an entity in its own right.
This becomes an issue in decision-making, and the group can take on a life of its own when decisions are being made.
This is because individuals are very sensitive to the ideas and opinions of others in a group. Few of us wish to be the one who speaks out against the majority view. However, this in itself causes several problems:
The first view expressed tends to become the majority view—or, at least, the perceived majority view. This is especially true if the second person to speak reinforces the opinion.
There are two main reasons for this:
If someone else speaks first, especially someone influential, people tend to doubt themselves and their views. They may wonder if perhaps the other person has better information, or a strong reason for holding a different opinion.
People fear the consequences of speaking out against the group, especially if the group is going to be working together in the longer term. They worry that group leaders will disapprove, and that they will therefore have less influence on another occasion.
The result of this is that the group tends to adopt the first position discussed—even if it is actually not the majority view.
Knowledge shared by more group members tends to be prioritised. In other words, if four or five group members were all aware of a piece of information before any discussion, and another piece of information was only known to two of them, the group will place a higher value on the knowledge known to more people. This can mean that ‘common knowledge’ is prized more highly than an expert opinion.
Opinions tend to become more polarised and more extreme. As more people express the same opinion, group belief in that opinion tends to increase. This therefore means that the opinion becomes more entrenched—and often more extreme. One example of this is the so-called echo chamber effect of social media (see box).
The ‘echo chamber’ effect
One of the criticisms made of social media is that it reinforces opinions and makes them more extreme.
This is because we tend to connect on social media with people who share our broad world views, and our general opinions. We also tend to block or unfriend people whose posts make us annoyed or irritated—which is often because their opinions differ from ours.
Over time, therefore, your social media feed becomes self-reinforcing, and you only see information from people who share your views. To avoid this:
Ensure that you follow people on both sides of any political debate, so that you are exposed to a range of views.
Engage in discussion, and ask people why they hold particular opinions. Aim to understand rather than persuade them about your views.
Regularly update the lists of people you are following to ensure that you introduce new ideas to your feed. It is good to feel uncomfortable with ideas from time to time, and to feel that your world view is being challenged a bit.
Decision-making is decentralised, so people are prepared to take more risk. The group will share the responsibility for the effects of the decision, which reduces the risk to any individual. This means that group decisions often involve more risk than any individual within the group would accept for themselves.
A desire for group harmony can be prioritised over the quality of decisions. Interestingly, it is entirely possible for groups to come to a decision that nobody in the group is really happy about—simply because nobody wanted to ‘rock the boat’. This phenomenon is known as the Abilene paradox (see box).
The Abilene Paradox
The Abilene Paradox is a phrase coined by Jerry Harvey to describe a situation when a group makes a decision that none of them endorse. He told an anecdote about a trip to Abilene in Texas.
His parents-in-law were visiting Harvey and his wife one weekend, during very hot weather. His father-in-law proposed a trip to Abilene, 50 miles away, to visit a café. Harvey’s wife immediately endorsed the plan. Concerned that it would be hot and unpleasant, but not wanting to rock the boat, Harvey agreed that it might be nice, but suggested that his mother-in-law might not want to go. However, she also endorsed the plan, so they set off. The trip was, indeed, hot and unpleasant, and the café was unremarkable. When they got home, it turned out that none of them had really wanted to go. Harvey’s father-in-law had only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
Groups that are very similar often tend to share very similar views. They also tend to know similar pieces of information. This can lead to a phenomenon known as groupthink, where groups with little diversity come to a decision rapidly, but their decisions tend to be poor.
However, it is also no use expecting a single person from any minority group to make a difference to the decision-making process. Research about women and people from minority ethnic groups on boards found that you need at least three people to be ‘different’ within any group to make a difference to decisions.
There is more about this in our page on Diversity in Groups and Teams.
Improving Group Decision Making
There are, therefore, a number of problems associated with group decision-making. However, there are also actions that you can take to address these, and hence improve the quality of group decisions.
The most obvious is to use a structured decision-making process like the one set out in our page A Decision-Making Framework. By forcing the group to engage with a process like this, you can avoid any short-cuts that may result in fewer options or views being considered.
Team leaders and those responsible for putting groups together can also help by establishing diverse groups, with a good gender balance and people from different backgrounds. This may make it harder for the group to work together initially, but will result in better decisions.
You may also take action to increase awareness of different opinions and options. For example, it may be helpful to circulate papers before meetings that set out all the options and views, in a balanced way, with advantages and disadvantages of each. This may mean canvassing group members for opinions ahead of time.
You may find it helpful to read our pages on the role of the Chair and the role of Secretary in meetings.
It can also be helpful to increase the personal accountability of group members. For example, board members in the UK are now personally accountable for business decisions, which has led to better questioning of executives before any recommendations are endorsed.
Group leaders may also consider bringing in outside experts who have no incentive to conform, especially for particular tasks. However, it is worth being aware that if you are paying them, you give them an incentive to prolong the engagement—and if you are not paying them, they may not prioritise your group.
Techniques like brainstorming can be used to get more ideas out in the open before any are criticised. This can be helpful to avoid the ‘first opinion’ issue, because all ideas are considered equally valid in the first phase of brainstorming.
For more about brainstorming, you may like to read our page on Creative Thinking Techniques.
The so-called Delphi technique is also designed to avoid anyone expressing their opinions ‘first’. Group members’ opinions on a proposal are sought, and then grouped together anonymously in a summary report that is reviewed individually by each group member. They then provide views on the outcome of the first round, and these are summarised and circulated again. The aim is to reach a consensus without meeting, and all opinions are expressed anonymously.
A Final Word: Awareness is Crucial
Probably the most important aspect of improving decision-making in groups is to be aware of these issues, and the problems that they can cause.
This is particularly true for those responsible for groups, but it is also helpful if others in the group are alert to potential problems. After all, self-awareness is the first step towards addressing any issue.