Think back to your last team meeting. Did you and your employees or co-workers have a friendly, respectful conversation? Was there consensus? Did everyone agree on the best course of action and how to implement it?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Interactions like these are preventing team members from sharing their true opinions. Worse, they actually discourage employees who have useful information from telling it to the rest of the group. That depressing message comes from marketing expert Jonah Sachs, author of the new book Unsafe Thinking: How to Be Nimble and Bold When You Need It Most.
The reason is shared information bias, what Sachs calls a "pernicious and powerful quirk" that occurs when groups get together. Shared information bias describes the often-noted phenomenon that most people prefer being wrong in a crowd to being right all by themselves. There's a simple evolutionary explanation for this. Groups such as tribes and clans and (but also work teams) often eject individuals who publicly disagree with the group's leaders or its universally held beliefs. Humans are not well adapted to survive all alone, so in many times and places this rejection by the group could prove fatal. For most of history it actually has been safer to be wrong in a group than right by yourself. In many situations, that's still true today.
So what happens when a group gets together to discuss an important issue? Members show their affinity to the group by restating and confirming what other group members, and especially group leaders, have already said. Even those with important and pertinent information to share tend to forget that information or dismiss it as not really relevant in their eagerness to show their solidarity with the group and its views. They also set aside their own insights and focus on how to assist in the group's chosen course of action. This is such a profound human instinct that most of us do it without realizing it.
All of this is great for having harmonious meetings that seem highly efficient, but it's not so great for finding innovative solutions to problems or recognizing new threats or opportunities. Fortunately, although you can't eliminate shared information bias, there are things you can do to lessen its effects and increase the chances that employees will share more of the good ideas and relevant information they have. For your next team meeting, follow these simple rules:
Have people bring notes.
Make sure each team member arrives at the meeting with a list of a few important points he or she plans to share. That way, if shared information bias causes them to forget or dismiss whatever they planned to say, they can refer to their notes and be reminded that they consider these points important.
Specifically ask for dissenting opinions.
As a group consensus emerges, pause the proceedings and say something like this: "It sounds like a lot of us agree. But right now, I would like to hear from anyone who has a different view." If team members have other viewpoints but have hesitated to voice them, this invitation may bring those other viewpoints forward.
Go around the table.
You can follow up your request for dissenting opinions by going around the room and asking each team member to say what he or she thinks. I learned the power of this approach years ago when I taught a class and made it a practice to ask each class participant in turn to speak. One man who was somewhat shy and would never have volunteered to say anything consistently offered some of the most insightful comments of the whole group. If you're not hearing from every person at a team meeting, you are likely missing valuable information.
If you're the leader, speak last.
The leader or leaders of the team should make sure to gather everyone else's input before offering their own. In most groups, members are highly attuned to leaders' opinions and are especially eager to go along with them. If you speak up too early--even making it clear that yours is just one view and you want to hear others--team members will tend to look for ways to agree with what you've said rather than take the conversation in a different direction with insights or opinions of their own. By keeping your thoughts to yourself at least through the early part of the meeting, you'll give them a chance to shine. And you'll gain the benefit of hearing their best ideas.