I’m sure we’ve all been part of a "groupthink" discussion where the course of action or the decision taken has let us feeling uncomfortable, yet we would like to go with the flow for a number of reasons. The result? We come out of those meetings feeling dissatisfied or not quite aligned, we feel disengaged and we are unable to commit fully to the decision being taken. What we often don’t realise is that we are also part of the problem because there was something about the meeting that stopped us from expressing what we really wanted.
This form of groupthink is called the Abilene Paradox, a term coined by Professor Jerry B. Harvey of the George Washington University, which is about the example of a family making a trip that no one wanted to go on. The paradox is more about managing agreement, instead of conflict, which then leads to decisions that might not be the best for the organisation or the team.
This is a common dilemma facing leaders when getting closure on decisions. When is a "yes" actually a "yes", when it could be a "yes, but", "no, but" or even a "no". What is it that stops people from expressing what they really think? How can people be encouraged to say what they really think without fear of reprisal?
Speaking to some of my peers, there were some valuable insights. There is probably no one right answer. Decisions are made based on a combination of evidence and judgement. As such, there are no "good decisions" at the outset. Only time will tell if a decision was good or not. What we can aspire for are "well-informed decisions". If that is clarified at the very beginning, colleagues are likely to feel more open and confident in expressing views that might not be the most popular in the room.
It is a spectrum. In one of the training sessions I attended, we were taken through a simple tool called "gradients of agreement", where, for every action or decision, each participant had to rate a decision on a grade of one to six, with one being absolutely happy with it and six when you are absolutely opposed to it. The scores in between allow a range of opinions in support of or against the action or decision. This approach steps away from the often used "yes/no" binary approach to decision-making. In addition to the scoring, members are also asked to explain their scores, which opens up a conversation and makes the discussion more well informed.
Think things over and do not decide in haste. Unless there is a crisis brewing, there is no need to take a quick decision if there is some reluctance or uncertainty among the group. Decisions taken in haste on important matters are the ones that might come back to haunt us. Effective leaders are known to suspend the need for a decision so that colleagues can go back to the drawing board, check their assumptions, get better information and, more importantly, create some spaces to continue the conversations. Where there is no pressing imperative to take a decision in terms of timeframe, it often leads to decisions being of much better quality and thus engaging colleagues more in taking these forward.
It is about inclusion, not consensus. Decisions are about choices and hence, in most cases, it is highly unlikely that there would be a perfect consensus on some critical decisions. Based on what I have experienced and heard, effective decisions are those that value inclusion over consensus. Inclusion enables people with different perspectives to come up with insights that lead to better-informed decisions. Consensus can sometimes drive us down a path where we cannot make hard choices. I remember our strategy consultant telling us: "If you come up with a strategy that everyone is absolutely happy about, there is a problem because you might not have made tough choices."
We know from experience that, if the decision-making process is flawed, the decisions that are then taken can have some terrible consequences. So it is important to focus as much, if not more, on the process of decision-making as we do on the quality of decisions or, indeed, the speed with which decisions are taken.
Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK