Thursday, July 16, 2015

Applied Psychology series (2/4): Management of Agreement

We humans are social beings & day in day out, we interact & live among people in our personal & professional spaces. Hence Interpersonal skills is of huge importance, for our effective functioning in society. Interpersonal skills is multi-facet comprising of team work, communication, cross-cultural understanding, just to name a few.

Group Decision Making is one such critical social skill, which we need on a frequent basis, for working effectively in group setting, for facilitating discussion & decision making.

Group Decision Making, in progress
In fact, we all have engaged in group decision making process, on a regular basis, in some form or the other, either as a participant or as a facilitator.

Hence, it might be a good idea to spend some time in understanding the various aspects of Group Decision Making, so that we can up-skill ourselves in Group Decision Making technique & become effective in 'Management of Agreement'.

Several years back, while undertaking a course on Social Psychology, I had came across three very interesting phenomenons (listed below), which have profound impact on the effectiveness of Group Decision Making process.
  • Group-think (Conformity) 
  • Group-shift (Group-polarization)  
  • Abilene Paradox
At the core, these concepts are raising a fundamental & radical question:

'Is Group Decision Making always preferable, in comparison to Individual Decision Making?'

Group Decision Making vs Independent Decision Making, which is better?
Intuitively, we might have a positive bias towards Group Decision Making, for it's obvious benefits like consensus building, generating multiple ideas through brain-storming sessions, engaging with multiple stakeholders etc.

However, Group Decision Making, has it's own pitfalls & hence it is crucial for us to raise our awareness about these not so obvious phenomenon, if we want to become effective in our 'Management of Agreement'.

All members in sync, with group decision
Let's begin our deep dive, by taking stock of the merits & demerits of Group Decision Making:
  • Merits of Group Decision Making
  1. Likelihood of generating more information & benefiting from collective knowledge
  2. Varied inputs & heterogeneity into the decision making process
  3. Increased diversity of views
  4. Multiple approaches & alternatives
  5. Consensus building & increased acceptance of the decision(s) made 
  • Demerits of Group Decision Making
  1. Brainstorming sessions are time consuming (slow paced process)
  2. Conformity (an individual with a different point of view, succumbing to group pressure)
  3. Group decision making can be dominated by one or few members 
  4. A group's overall effectiveness will suffer, if it comprises of low & medium ability members,
  5. Ambiguous responsibility (in an individual decision, accountability for the final outcome resides on one person. However, in group decision, the accountability of any single member is diluted).
Let us now, explore the three phenomenons which can derail the effectiveness of Group Decision Making process:
  • Group Think: 
Group-think - Social Pressure on an individual to go with majority
Many of us, at some point in time, would have experienced this phenomenon, in varied degrees & in various occasions in our day to day life. 

We would have felt like speaking up in a meeting, in a classroom, or in an informal gathering but finally we would have ended up, deciding against it.

One of the probable reason may have been our inability to overcome our shyness.The other possibility, is we might have been a victim of group think.

Group-think, is social pressure on an individual who has a different point of view, to conform (agree) to the group consensus (norm).

Group-think, suppresses the full expression of deviant, minority & unpopular views of an individual.

Does group think happen in all groups?

The comforting news is, 'No'.
However, there are many factors which contributes towards the occurrence of group-think, in a group decision making process.

The probability of Group-think, is high in the following situations:
  1. When there is a clear group identity
  2. When members hold a positive image of their group
  3. When the group perceives a threat to their group's positive image & they want to protect it.
To safe-guard the effectiveness of our Group Decision Making, let us now explore the strategies to mitigate it's occurrence:
  1. Group size: People grow more intimidated & hesitant as the group size increases. Hence try keeping the group size upto 10 members or split the large group into smaller sub-groups
  2. Facilitator should try to play an impartial role. 
  3. Devil's advocate: Someone in the group can be assigned to play the role of devil's advocate.They should explicitly challenge the majority position & offer divergent perspectives.
  4. Group Leaders: They should avoid expressing their own opinions, especially in the early stages of deliberation. They should actively seek inputs from all members.
  5. Avoid Positive Bias: Delay discussion of possible gains, instead talk about the dangers or risks of a proposed decision. Focusing on the negatives, makes the group less likely to stifle dissenting views & more likely to gain an objective evaluation.
  • Group shift or Group Polarization:
Group taking extreme position
From our personal experience, we would have been witness to situation(s), wherein the group takes an extreme view, during their course of group discussion. The discussion process, leads members towards a more extreme view of position, than they originally held. This phenomenon, is referred as Group-shift (Group-polarization).

Conservatives become more cautious & more aggressive types take on more risk.

Whether the shift in the group's decision is toward greater caution or more risk, depends on the dominant pre-discussion norm.

The reasons, for group polarization are:
  1. Shared identity & comfort zone: The members of a particular group have a shared identity & they are in a comfort zone with each other. Therefore in group discussions, the group members are more willing to express extreme versions of their original positions.
  2. Diffused responsibility: Group decisions frees any single member from accountability for the group's final decision, so group members tend to take a more extreme position. 
  3. Competition with Out-group: The IN-group members, have an urge to demonstrate themselves as different from the OUT-group (other groups, whom they perceive as their competitor).
As a group-leader or as a group-member, we should execute our judgement & moderate the extreme approaches during our group decision making, which unintentionally we might end up taking.
  • Abilene Paradox:

Abilene paradox example
The paradox between explicit & implicit behaviour
Have you ever, been in a situation, when as a group member you went along with a decision thinking it is a group consensus? Later on, you discovered, even the other members of the group did the same, thinking it was a group consensus. The paradox was, every member went along with the decision thinking it is a group consensus. In reality, none from the group agreed with the decision, but still all went along, till things fell apart. This paradox is called, Abilene paradox. (This theory was coined by researcher Jerry Harvey).

Let's look into the probable reasons behind the occurrences of Abilene Paradox:
  1. Group members, feel a compulsion to be perceived as part of the group
  2. They are fearful of challenging conventions (traditions)
  3. Dominant & rigid hierarchy, results in members toeing the line
  4. Groups which displays passive behavior & lacks interaction among the members
Let us explore the possible mitigation strategies, for avoid this unwanted phenomenon in our group decision making process:
  1. We should develop a culture of transparent & open communication 
  2. Facilitate interaction among all the group members, cutting across hierarchy.
  3. Group leader, should encourage 'critical reasoning' among the members, to avoid herd mentality.
  4. If members are fearful of expressing their opinion freely, create systems for seeking anonymous feedback & opinions.
  5. Arrange a follow up review session, with sub-group(s) or individuals, for evaluating the final decision (consensus).   
Putting things into perspective, we can see Group Decision Making offers both breadth & depth of input for information gathering, makes analysis more critical & facilitates support from the group for implementing the final solution. 

But on the other hand it is a slow process, it can create internal conflicts & aspects of human behavior like group-think, group-shift & Abilene paradox can derail the final outcome of Group Decision Making process.   

So in conclusion, which method is most effective?
Is it Group Decision Making or Individual Decision Making? 

Effective Group Decision Making
(Image courtesy:
Taking into considering all the above stated factors, we can clearly see there are pros & cons, in both the methods. 

Hence one needs to factor in all these aspects in their evaluation process & opt for the method which best suits in the given context & situation. 

In practice, one needs to be observant for picking up early signals of the probable pitfalls (Group-Think, Group-Shift & Abilene Paradox) for their timely mitigation, to facilitate an effective 'Management of Agreement'

References: Organizational Behavior - Robbins, Judge & Vohra (Pearson)
                    Course on Social Psychology - Professor Scott Plous Wesleyan University

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Applied Psychology series (1/4): Wear Your Thinking Hats

critical thinking
Image courtesy:

The ability to 'THINK', is possibly the greatest skill possessed by we humans.

Ironically, thinking through all aspects, taking into account the time perspective, collateral implications, balancing emotions & rationality does not come natural to us.

In most cases, we end up with 'not so good decisions' & in the hindsight we uncover the judgement errors we made.

If these lessons learned were embedded in our cognition & next time around we were better off in our thinking & decision making, it would mean we are progressing & getting better.

For some of us, this does happen [wiser folks :)], but then there are majority of us who end up 'herding' to our old thinking pattern & decision making.

Edward de Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats' is a very powerful yet simplistic model, which can help in enhancing our thinking ability & facilitate better decision making.

Six Hats method is synonymous to 'Parallel Thinking'.

Parallel Thinking, is holistic approach, multi-dimensional view, putting all views on the table & choosing the best alternative keeping aside ego & bias.

Image courtesy:

The colour of each hat is related to a function:
  • White hat: White is neutral & objective
The white hat is concerned with objective facts & figures.
  • Red hat: Red suggests anger, rage & emotions.
 The red hat gives the emotional view.
  • Black hat: Black is sombre & serious.
 The black hat is cautious & careful. It points out the weakness in an idea.
  • Yellow hat: Yellow is sunny & positive
The yellow hat is optimistic & covers hope & positive thinking.
  • Green hat: Green is grass, vegetation & abundant, fertile growth.
 The green hat indicates creativity & new ideas.
  • Blue hat: Blue is cool, & it is also the colour of the sky, which is above everything else.
 The blue hat is concerned with control, the organisation of the thinking process & the use of the other hats.

Advantages of Six Thinking Hats concept:
  • Power: Intelligence, experience & knowledge (in a group setting) are fully used.

  • Time Saving: Divergent point of views are put alongside (in parallel) & based on merit, a decision is made. (This is different from being argumentative).

  • Removal of Ego: Six hats, put asides confrontational & adversarial thinking, which feeds into ego issues. (Six hats method provides a neutral & objective exploration of a subject).

  • One thing at a time: Processing information, managing feelings, exploring options, walking the line of caution etc all happening at same time leads to confusion, which adversely affects good thinking. Six hats model, helps us to entangle these threads & take one aspect of thinking at a time.

For a detailed understanding of the concept, one can refer to the book 'Six Thinking Hats', by Edward de Bono.

Psychology Today had quoted in it's review - "We owe de Bono a debt for constantly reminding us that thinking is a skill & can be improved".

It is indeed a great book, to invest our time, if one seeks to improve their thinking & decision making skill.