We normally think that a group of people is more effective than a single individual. That’s why we form teams, companies, and nations, after all.
But the reality is that groups can, and often do, make worse decisions than individuals.
One of the best examples of this comes from the Kennedy Administrations. Here, you find a team of some of the smartest people in the world making one of the worst decisions in modern history: The Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba.
The Smartest People Making a Stupid Decision
Kennedy was elated from his recent electoral victory, and there was a general sense of the need to support him, a new president, among his staff.
So how did they end up signing off of what became the most embarrassing moment of his career?
- His advisors influenced one another to openly support Kennedy.
- In this atmosphere of public agreement, they all suppressed their personal objections.
- Of three reports that did voice objections, one was kept from the President, and the other two held by him from his staff.
- When they made their final decision, the group voted publicly, adding pressure to show support for their leader.
And so it seemed that everyone was in agreement: it was a good idea to invade Cuba with an under-supported, outnumbered force.
Surrounded by the enthusiastic support of his own most trusted advisors, even a great leader might question his own reservations about a bad plan.
Groups Tend to Promote Conformity
By definition, the members of a group must conform on something, whether that’s a desired outcome, shared interests, shared history, or shared love of a celebrity.
This can be great if what you need from a group is support, and the sense of belonging is exactly what makes groups emotionally appealing.
But if you form a group in order to widen your perspective and see more options, the conformity becomes a problem because it pushes groups towards a single viewpoint, which is usually that of the leader.
A group like this has the same scope of ideas and perspective as a single person.
And so you end up in a dynamic tension:
- Groups are most valuable by helping us see things from a new perspective or leveraging other peoples’ ideas.
- Groups naturally pull its members towards a single perspective, and that is what makes them emotionally rewarding.
These two tendencies need to be managed.
So how do you tell if your group is gravitating towards a single viewpoint?
1. Look for the Emergence of a Single Leader
If you are part of a small, dynamic team, leadership may not be a formalized concept, and in fact ought to shift as different situations arise.
But if you notice a single leader emerging, someone who others naturally defer to even when they aren’t the best authority in a given situation, watch out.
In my experience running team-building workshops that simulate stressful situations, an organizer does emerge, but that person is not always the leader of the group.
- The Leader generally is the one who best understands the requirements of a given circumstance and directs group resources in that direction. This person can and should change if the situation changes or as the team moves through the phases of a project. In some cases, the leadership role moves too quickly to pin on any one person but this is rare and requires a very well-adjusted team.
- The organizer simply helps manage the communication of the group and ensures that everyone is heard.
When groups confuse their organizer with their leader, problems arise, as this one person becomes, willingly or unwillingly, the sole decision-maker. At that point, the group has lost its ability to leverage the strengths of its members.
A better situation is to have one person who makes sure everyone is heard from and who facilitates leadership transitions to whomever is the most knowledgeable in a situation.
If your group is formalized and has a single person who must make the final decision, like the President and his cabinet, it helps to recognize that the “decision-maker” is more of a mouthpiece or a figurehead for his team.
Takeaway: Leadership is flexible and should move from person to person, and is separate from the organizer and the head-of-state role.
2. Does the Group Confuse Loyalty with Assent?
In inexperienced groups, and in old, rigid ones, it can be easy to confuse loyalty to the group with assent to the group’s ideas.
We see this in our current political climate: a Democratic Senator may disagree with the actions of his or her party and remain loyal to the party, but face accusations of disloyalty.
When public opinion and the appearance of cohesion are on the line, expressing dissent actually is a very dangerous thing for a group member to do, **but it is still a very different thing than actual disloyalty**.
If you are managing a team, look out for a tendency to assume that a dissenting opinion means someone is against the group. In fact, they may be trying to help the group avoid making what they see as a serious mistake.
This can be very hard to pick up on: if your group has a culture of loyalty-equals-agreement, you will never hear any open dissent, and you may assume that everyone really is in agreement.
In that case, dissent will continue to fester until it triggers disloyalty. Not because of a difference of opinion, but because of a recognition that nobody is listening.
One solution is to cast dissent as feedback, a way to openly show your loyalty to the group by helping it improve.
Be careful though: sometimes dissent really is disloyalty, though in most cases, you won’t have to worry about that kind staying hidden.
Takeaway: Dissociate loyalty from assent. If you are already there, find a way to color dissent as feedback.
3. Are Certain Members Shut Down, or are Their Ideas Dismissed or Minimized?
This is related to the above point, but even in groups where dissent is allowed and encouraged, you can find individuals who are constantly minimized.
This can arise for a number of reasons.
- They are socially unpopular.
- They are new and/or inexperienced.
- They are an outsider, not ‘part of the gang’ (an outside expert or consultant might fall into this role).
- Their ideas are a little too far out for the group to deal with.
- They just don’t seem to ‘get it’.
The danger in allowing this sort of thing to continue, besides the fact that you are losing out on potentially valuable contributions, is that others in the group will start to get the message that respect is based on things not related to performance.
That is probably more in line with reality anyway, but part of leading a team is fighting that tendency. After all, if you don’t want that person contributing, why are they in the team at all?
Assuming you do want to keep them, you have a couple options.
- Ask them to work with someone who has more clout in the group. Often, when the same idea is expressed or introduced by someone with more respect, experience, or likability, it is better received. If the minimized person still gets credit, this can be a useful way to get their ideas out AND to help them build a reputation by association with another group member.
- If the problem is more the nature of their ideas or their seeming disconnect, you can work with them individually to help them present their ideas in a way that connects better. This can be tricky and requires some patience, but people generally want to feel like they are making a valuable contribution, so if you cast it as, “I’d like to help get your ideas more attention,” you won’t run into much resistance to an offer of help.
4. Are Communication and Organizational Tools Accessible?
In working with small teams, especially newly formed ones, I often witnessed them struggling with the best ways to share information about projects.
Elaborate systems inevitably collapsed under their own weight.
- The best systems were:
- Visible to all
- Changeable by all (or the person managing it was basically an open interface for anyone to have changes made).
- Simple to use, read, and access
In the simulations I’ve run, whiteboards worked very well, since everyone was in the same room.
Ironically, not all teams gravitated towards this solution. One team passed around notebooks and slips of paper for hours before I wheeled one of the dozens of mobile whiteboards over to their table in a not-so-subtle hint.
Even then, I eventually just had to tell them to use the whiteboard, and their performance immediately improved.
Takeaway: Communication systems don’t have to be complex or advanced, but they do need to be visible and changeable by everyone on the team.
5. Internal Rituals vs External Flexibility
The last point to look out for is the presence of internal group rituals that create a rhythm for the group and a sense of stability and consistency.
Again, looking to my workshop experience, I encountered young startup teams that insisted on letting people report however they wanted, whenever they wanted, giving them as much freedom as they wanted.
In the end, these groups spent a lot of time on simply communicating the status of projects. Eventually, they moved towards a quick, repetitive process, which enabled them to save time on routine reporting and use that extra time on creative work and big-picture planning, or handling crises.
The pattern I’ve seen is that internal ritual (not rigidity) can enable external flexibility.
The danger arises in the desire to control too much. Southwest Airline gives its employees in-the-moment authority to make decisions, but it also has a structure around how-things-are-done. It’s a delicate balance.
Takeaway: Too much freedom can be paralyzing. Establish a lightweight framework of small, internal rituals to create consistency and a sense of cohesion.
Summary of Things to Watch in Your Team:
- Does a leader emerge, and does the rest of the team defer, challenge, or support that leader?
- Does the team confuse loyalty/trust with agreement?
- How much dissent is there in general? Less is not always better.
- Are certain members shut down or are their ideas dismissed or minimized?
- Are communication tools accessible to all or is someone in control of the information? The latter case isn’t always bad if it works.
- Does the team develop certain rituals or do they try to be flexible and adaptive? There’s a balance, which is different from team to team, but generally, internal rituals allow external flexibility.