Harvard Business Review Press
So who’s the Eeyore in your group?
Like the donkey from Winnie the Pooh, who’s your pessimistic and perpetually anxious teammate?
Who in your group can be counted on to play the devil’s advocate? Who has the courage to zig while the rest of us zag? Who has zero interest in going along to get along? And who will always put the good of the organization ahead of self-interest, even if it means finishing dead last in the office popularity contest?
Every smart group has an Eeyore.
A group of really smart people lacking an Eeyore will make some really dumb decisions.
A devil’s advocate is one of the ways to hedge against a host of pitfalls and biases that send groups sailing off in wrong directions.
Research shows that two heads aren’t always better than one, say authors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie. Sustein is a U.S. legal scholar who served as administrator of the While House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs while Hastie is an expert on the psychology of decision making.
“Do groups usually correct individual mistakes? The simple answer is that they do not. Individual errors are not merely replicated but actually amplified in many group decisions – a process of some garbage in, much garbage out. ”
Here are just a few of the reasons behind all the garbage coming out of groups.
We tend to follow the alpha dog, even when we don’t agree. Staying silent is rarely a career limiting move.
Groups tend to be overly optimistic. We become far more confident in our judgments when we’re in a group of like-minded individuals.
Groups like to focus on what everyone already knows rather than soliciting unshared information that may challenge the gospel truth.
“When most of the unshared information is opposed to the position that is initially the most popular, that unshared information will never be discussed and shared information will dominate,” warn Sunstein and Hastie.
And while we may join with moderate views and an open mind, our group will inevitably drift to a more extreme and entrenched position. You can watch polarization happen with online groups, where anyone with a dissenting view is dismissed as misinformed, easily misled or a manipulative troll.
“Group polarization is more likely and is heightened when people have a sense of shared identity and belong to a tight-knit group or club,” say Sunstein and Hastie.
So how do you build a wiser group that makes smarter decisions?
If you’re the leader, speak last. Show some love to your devil’s advocate. Insist that members disclose information and inconvenient truths that the rest of the group doesn’t know yet. And reward individuals for contributing to correct group decisions.
Even better than having someone play the part of a devil’s advocate is to adopt red teaming. It’s an approach widely used in the military. “Red teaming involves the creation of a team that is given the task of criticizing or defeating a primary team’s plans to execute a mission. Red teams are an excellent idea, especially if they are sincerely motivated to find mistakes and to exploit vulnerabilities and are given clear incentives to do exactly that.”
And then there’s TagTrade, a prediction market created by Best Buy. Employees wager on company events with virtual money that can be cashed out for real world prizes. “The TagTrade market has outperformed Best Buy’s official sales team in forecasting quarterly results, has bested construction managers in predicting whether new offices will open on time and has been credited with helping the company outlast longtime rival Circuit City.”
Whether you’re in the private, public or nonprofit sector, Sunstein and Hastie show how to build smarter and wiser groups. If no one around the table is asking what’s the worst thing that could happen, your organization’s destined to find out.