​The Secret to Making Better Decisions

1st September 2011

The Secret to Making Better Decisions

training journal logoYou don’t have to look far these days to see the outcomes of poor decision-making.

From the economic crisis currently engulfing the Euro Zone and the decisions that precipitated the financial crisis in 2008 going right back to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the inability to predict Pearl Harbour, history is littered with examples of decisions being taken badly.

In all these cases, warnings were discarded and alternative courses of action never considered. How, for example, has the last few years seen some of the world’s highest performers – from bankers to politicians to regulators – end up making so many poor decisions in regard to protecting their organisations from risk?

One of the most widely held reasons behind these poor decisions is what is known as Groupthink.

A term originally coined by William H. Whyte in 1952 and further developed by Yale University’s Irving Janis, Groupthink is, according to Whyte and Janis, “a mode of thinking….when members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

In short, Groupthink is where an environment is created where there is such pressure on unanimity and agreement that alternative courses are never assessed and there is a general unwillingness to speak out against what is perceived to have become the consensus.

It’s something almost all of us can relate to where we hold back on putting across a point of view because it’s different and we’re worried that it might make us look stupid in front of our colleagues. Rogue trader, Nick Leeson put it well when he said that his superiors were simply “afraid to ask stupid questions” as he initially made stunning profits for Barings

So how can we pre-empt such dangers? And what skills do we need to counteract Groupthink decision-making in organisations today?

There are a number of areas where decision-making can be improved, chief among them are the arts of facilitation and business coaching.

Group activities require strong leadership and facilitation and an ability to manage group dynamics. This is why the role of the facilitator is so important. Facilitators can play a crucial role in creating an environment, where individuals believe it’s safe to ask for help, admit errors, and challenge others.

How do they achieve this?

One useful model here is the group development model, espoused by American Psychologist Bruce Tuckman, which examines the different stages in developing a group from the forming of the group to the storming, where different ideas compete for consideration, the norming, where a mutual goal and plan is agreed upon, and performing, the execution stage where the team functions as a unit.

In all these stages, the facilitator needs to take a holistic approach to the discussions taking place. They need to facilitate the different stages and be able to look further than the dominant opinion in the room and the people that often speak the most and the loudest

They need to be able to detect the weaker signals from those who have alternative views and give everyone the opportunity to be heard. If the Tuckman model works, by the performing stage, dissent is allowed but not conflict which can have almost as negative effect as Groupthink.

Facilitators need to find that crucial balance between being constructively critical of information without reducing the likelihood of people bringing ideas to them, and they also need to be adept at summing up discussions. Summing up can encourage participants to mentally step out of the discussions and entrenched positions to consider what is happening and the possible outcomes.

Coaching is another area which can have a positive impact on decision-making.

Driven by the GROW model, coaching can help individuals create a detailed overview of their strengths, behavioural skills and areas where they need to improve.

In this way, employees can identify and take ownership for their own goals, options and solutions and be more comfortable in decision-making environments. Coaching can also help individuals focus on skills development relating to assertiveness and communication, for example, and help the employee reflect more on specific actions.

Furthermore, some of the key skills taught and practised by coaches today, such as the ability to listen and ask questions, are also crucial when making better decisions.

Facilitation and coaching are, of course, only two of many other areas which can help individuals in their decision-making and their interaction with others.

Emotional intelligence, for example, can enable people to make behavioural adjustments in relation to team working, leadership and personal effectiveness and learn to better appreciate self-expression in others; face-to-face skills can improve our ability to relate to others openly and honestly; and influencing without authority looks at how we can better influence others without resorting to bullying or threatening – often the characteristics of Groupthink.

Decision-making environments today need to be forums where there is a regular flow of information and where collaboration and support come to the fore. With better tools at our disposal, we can hopefully avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

 

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