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Review: Wiser – Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hasite

wiserThis review first ran in the Feb. 17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter

By Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie

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.

Review: Dana Caspersen’s Changing the Conversation – The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution

Change the conversationThis review first ran in the Feb. 2 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution

By Dana Caspersen

Penguin Books


Scrapping the downtown bus lane was disappointing.

The blowback on social media was disconcerting.

Folks railed against the “flagrant disrespect for civic engagement” and the “pious hypocrisy” and “sheer foolishness” of Councillors “who seem to viscerally resent downtown residents.”

There were charges that “Hamilton has an autoimmune disorder that attacks and destroys the connective tissue of civic engagement.”

A local nonprofit decided to auction off Councillors without their consent.

There were calls to “make life miserable for these jokers for the next four years” and confessions that “I have no intention to be even polite anymore.” A few Hamiltonians even mused about pulling up stakes and moving to more transit-friendly cities.

It’s been just shy of two months since Hamilton’s newest edition of Council was sworn in. We’re looking at a long and unproductive four years unless we learn how to change the conversation in our community. We’re not going to build a better transit system for all if we careen down the low road.

Conflict mediator Dana Caspersen has identified 17 principles of conflict resolution that we’d do well to adopt in Steeltown. “The principles provide encouragement to see conflict as a moment of opportunity,” says Caspersen, author of Changing the Conversation. “They urge us to recognize that we have the ability to call up the curiosity needed to step away from cycles of attack and counterattack and to move, instead, with as much grace and skill as we can muster toward resolution.”

Here’s a quick rundown of Caspersen’s 17 conflict resolution principles:

  1. Don’t hear attack. Listen for what is behind the words. “Cycles of attack, defense and counterattack often dominate the action in a conflict. Instead of hearing attack, listen for what people are really trying to say, even if they are saying it very badly.”
  2. Resist the urge to attack. Change the conversation from the inside.
  3. Talk to the other person’s best self. “Assume there is a part of the other person that is capable of moving with you toward a positive resolution – and talk as if that is the case.”
  4. Differentiate needs, interests and strategies. “Frequently, in a conflict, we can understand people’s needs and interests even if we don’t agree with their strategies. This understanding can make it easier to find solutions. Resist the urge to keep arguing for your own preferred strategy or position. Instead, help the people you are in conflict with get a full picture of what is important to you in the situation and find out what is important to them.”
  5. Acknowledge emotions. See them as signals.
  6. Differentiate between acknowledgement and agreement. “You can acknowledge a person’s position or way of thinking even when you are in complete disagreement.”
  7. When listening, avoid making suggestions. “Offering a suggestion can be a way of not listening, of trying to manipulate or ‘fix’ the other person. It may be seen as a way of devaluing the needs of the other person.”
  8. Differentiate between evaluation and observation. “Keep the people in the conflict – both yourself and the other person – separate from the problem.”
  9. Test your assumptions. Relinquish them if they prove to be false.
  10. Develop curiosity in difficult situations. “In the tension of conflict, our first impulse is often to abandon curiosity. When this happens, we stop trying to understand the other people. To varying degrees, we begin to dehumanize the other people. We move away.”
  11. Assume useful dialogue is possible, even when it seems unlikely. “Often people need reassurance that if they shift directions or back away from positions, they will still be respected and seen as credible. Focus on finding a pathway to resolution that doesn’t leave anyone embarrassed or with a lingering urge to even the score. Avoid personal attacks.”
  12. If you are making things worse, stop. “Sometimes our reaction to conflict is so ingrained that it seems impossible to change. However, the way we approach and engage with conflict is not a fundamental part of our character, it is a learned behavior. We can change it.”
  13. Figure out what’s happening, not whose fault it is. “Blaming obscures the mechanics of the conflict and keeps the focus on the past. It distracts us from finding out what happened and why, and makes it much more difficult for people to talk constructively about difficult things.”
  14. Acknowledge conflict. Talk to the right people about the real problem. “Avoid the temptation to try to address the problem by ranting about the situation in general, complaining behind people’s backs or attacking them in indirect ways.”
  15. Assume undiscovered options exist. Seek solutions people willingly support.
  16. Be explicit about agreements. Be explicit when they change.
  17. Expect and plan for future conflict.

Before we face the next Most Important Decision To Ever Be Made in the History of Hamilton, we’d do well to read Changing the Conversation.  While it delivers instant validation and adulation, ramping up the rhetoric on social media won’t get us where we need to go.  Caspersen’s 17 conflict resolution principles just might pull us out of the never-ending loop of attack and counterattack. Maybe we can even crowdfund to have Caspersen stage an intervention that gets us all on the bus.

@jayrobb lives and works in Hamilton.