Group Decision Making
Decision analysis provides individuals a systematic approach to making decisions. Unfortunately, no one knows everything and individual decisions are often biased by a decision-maker’s unique perspective. Inclusiveness – inviting others to help make a decision – should result in better decisions than any individual alone could make. Using a group of decision makers to make a decision should improve decision making quality because (1) more decision makers means more information, so decisions made by groups rather than individuals should be more informed decisions, and (2) more decision makers means more perspectives, so decisions made by groups rather than individuals should be less biased by any one individual’s unique perspective.
This assumes that groups are able to take advantage of the additional information and perspectives available when groups (rather than individuals) make decisions. The inability of a group to take advantage of the additional information and perspectives available in a group is called process loss. When decision-making groups suffer from process loss, their decisions may not reflect the informational advantage of groups over individuals. There are three critical causes of process loss in groups.
Problems with Group Decision Making
The first critical cause of process loss in groups is the composition problem. The composition problem has to do with how groups are formed – who is included in the decision-making process, and therefore how diverse is the pool of information and perspectives brought to the decision by the group. Decision-makers often are not sufficiently diversity-seeking when looking for help to make a decision. Instead, decision makers often rely on the comfort of similar others – individuals who are like them and thereby unlikely to bring different information and perspectives to the decision. This represents a missed opportunity to better inform a decision, because asking similar others to help make a decision may not provide any informational advantage over making the decision alone. A decision is likely to be better informed when those individuals included in the decision-making process reflect a diverse set of perspectives and information – for example, a comprehensive set of stakeholders to the decision. Decision quality often suffers when holders of important information and perspectives (e.g., different stakeholders, constituencies) are not given a seat at the decision-making table.
The second critical cause of process loss in groups is the participation problem. Even when the inclusiveness of a decision-maker successfully brings together a group representative of the diversity of information and perspectives available to help make a decision, that group can only make a more informed decision if the group members share their unique information and perspectives – in other words, if they participate in the decision-making deliberations. Spectators are individuals who are included in decisionmaking deliberations, but who do not speak up and share their unique information and perspectives – instead, they sit on the sidelines and let others make the decision. Spectators decrease the quality of group decisions because spectators represent a missed opportunity for the group to gain the information and perspective necessary to make a more informed decision.
Spectating happens for several reasons. The larger a group, the less air-time there is available for everyone to speak, and the less salient a spectator is likely to be. The probability of spectating can be decreased by dividing a decision-making group into smaller groups for preliminary deliberations. Spectating is also a learned behavior – individuals learn to spectate. National and organizational cultures often allow or even encourage spectating, and then individuals get comfortable spectating. One of the best ways to start a group’s decision making is to have everyone say something – even something as simple as introducing themselves – because once people start talking it is easier to keep them talking, and therefore easier to make sure they are sharing their unique information and perspective with the group. Finally, it reflects good leadership to be vigilant about spectators, and to draw individuals into the discussion if they seem to be spectating. In that sense, you don’t have to be THE leader in a group to be A leader in a group. Active listening also encourages participation by acknowledging the value of input.
The third critical cause of process loss in groups is the influence problem. The influence problem represents a paradox for groups because we use groups to make decisions because we want to be influenced – we want the unique information and perspectives of others to influence our thinking to make our decisions more informed. The problem is that we use groups to make decisions when we are uncertain; when we are uncertain, we are highly susceptible to influence by others, to resolve our uncertainty. So once people start talking in a group, influence starts occurring – and that means that even if people are talking, they may not be sharing their unique information and perspectives, but instead their unique information and perspectives AS INFLUENCED by others who have already spoken. The paradox of influence in groups is how to get everyone’s unique information and perspectives on the table before anyone is influenced by anyone else.
The influence problem happens for two different reasons. Individuals may be influenced by others to change how they express their unique information and perspectives – to hedge or self-censor – simply because they are uncertain. Or individuals may be influenced to change how they express the unique information and perspectives because they are afraid to disagree with the group. This suggests that to avoid influence problems in a group, it is important to get group members to commit to their unique information and perspectives BEFORE they know what others are going to say (for example, by getting them to write down their ideas before anyone starts talking). This also suggests that to avoid influence problems in a group, it is important to legitimate dissent – to make group members feel it is OK to disagree in the group (for example, by having someone play the role of devil’s advocate). After all, we use groups to make decisions because we expect different people to bring different information and perspectives to the decision-making process, so disagreement should be natural and expected – but it can also be uncomfortable. If we want to use groups to make more informed decisions, group members must feel comfortable expressing their unique information and perspectives, even (or perhaps especially) when that unique information and perspective disagrees with others in the group. The composition of a group can help in this regard, since salient differences among group member may help legitimate differences in information and perspectives, and make dissent seem more natural.