Every Meeting Starts With an Unstated Goal — and It Leads to Bad Decisions

NLI Groupthink master class

Authored by

NLI Staff
What causes groupthink? One major factor is the tendency people have in meetings to rush toward consensus, just so the meeting can end earlier.

There’s a tantalizing, yet dangerous, incentive found in just about every work meeting. The faster everyone in a meeting can come to an agreement, the sooner it can be over.

Call it “the race toward consensus.” People want to achieve the race toward consensus so that they can resume their “real” responsibilities, such as completing other tasks, making phone calls, and executing on projects that have been deemed higher priority. It also avoids the cognitive uneasiness that comes with not yet having made an important decision.

However, brain and behavior science have shown the race toward consensus to be a misguided goal, given the unintended consequences. Prioritizing agreement really only ups the chances the group will succumb to groupthink, a toxic phenomenon whereby collective decision-making is narrow, flawed, and risky. Decisions reached by groupthink are made quickly, but are often rife with problems.

Fortunately, the research suggests concrete steps leaders can take if they want to minimize the presence of groupthink in their organizations and boost the quality of their decisions. NLI recently captured these steps in the white paper “The Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink.”

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Removing the blinders

A key insight from NLI’s research on groupthink is that it doesn’t matter much how high the stakes are. Across history, people have raced toward consensus even in major geopolitical scenarios. A major reason for this is a cognitive bias known as expedience bias. It refers to the human tendency to make decisions as quickly as possible, in order to preserve mental and physical resources.

The chief danger of deferring to expedience bias is that people tend to omit important information from the discussion at-hand. Imagine a racehorse speeding toward the finish line with blinders on. With such a singular goal, there’s little care given to outside factors. Groupthink is what happens when each meeting participant races toward the finish line.

One way teams can help themselves avoid groupthink is by aligning on their shared goals at the top of each meeting. Psychologists have performed a great deal of research showing that people feel greater intrinsic motivation when they share a goal with others. In creating this goal — or at least making it explicit — leaders can help reduce expedience bias. They can also refocus people’s attention on the specific objective.

Of course, leaders can (and should) reduce groupthink and bias even more through the cultivation of more diverse teams. But when it comes to working with existing teams, simply removing those attention-limiting blinders can go a long way.

This article is the second installment in NLI’s new series, Groupthink: The Master Class, a 6-week campaign to help leaders understand the science behind identifying — and eliminating — groupthink.

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