illuminating pathways to change

Keep the Canaries Alive and Singing in Meetings

Organisations can invest tremendous amounts of money, energy and time trying to build cohesiveness in teams, leadership groups and decision / planning meetings. But when it comes to teams and groups, I don’t necessarily equate cohesive with effective. When sticking together means not challenging each other’s thinking cohesiveness is dysfunctional.

Many years ago I was on a committee that made a decision to do something I strongly disagreed with. It involved an “internal loan” using money that had come from donations. I was new to the committee and recall with shame that I didn’t speak up to express my concerns about the ethics of the decision. Instead I allowed a powerful, charismatic individual to push through his proposal.

Why didn’t I speak up? Many reasons but perhaps the strongest was reputational pressure (discussed below). The committee took a round the table straw vote – the proposer spoke first then asked his mate sitting next to him to speak. What happened was the cascade effect. I was one of the last to speak and by then everyone else had indicated agreement, so I went along with everyone else! Afterwards I learned that others shared my view but also felt uncomfortable in challenging what appeared to be a group agreement. I think many of us have experienced something similar. Since then I have fallen prey to the same trap over and over. Why? Perhaps the meetings were structured in ways that dissenting or warning voices were actively discouraged.

When a group meets to make decisions a high degree of consensus is important for the group to be aligned behind the decisions and committed to their implementation. But not before exploring options and unearthing the implications and risks behind those choices. As a facilitator I work to strengthen the group’s capacity to challenge each other’s thinking and surface underlying conflict and differences.

Who has experienced the situation in this cartoon?

You may often hear facilitators say “the wisdom is in the room” but that is not necessarily the case as this article on Making Dumb Groups Smarter suggests. Quoting from Sunstein and Hastie’s article there are two main errors in groups:

“informational signals” (some group members receive incorrect signals from other members) and “reputational pressures” (people silence themselves or change their views to avoid serious penalties). These two factors lead to four separate but interrelated problems: (1) Groups don’t merely fail to correct their members’ errors; they amplify them. (2) They fall victim to cascade effects, following the statements and actions of those who went first. (3) They become polarized, taking even more extreme positions than originally. (4) They focus on “what everybody knows,” ignoring critical information that only one or two members have.

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