Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Managing Agreement-The Illusion of Consensus Trap- A Tipsheet

There is a famous experiment in social psychology called the Solomon Asch experiment.  In this experiment everyone in a control group intentionally provides an obviously incorrect answer to a simple question about a visual image.  The subject of the experiment is then asked to provide his answer, unaware of being intentionally misled.  You can watch this process unfold in a YouTube link on Professor Michael Roberto's blog.  The results of this experiment have been replicated multiple times.  It's a powerful demonstration of the very human desire to conform to the views of the group. This can lead to the "illusion of consensus" and some really faulty decision making.  Great leaders recognize this and devise tactics to mitigate this risk.  These tactics and techniques are especially important on global diverse teams.

How does the leader get the full benefit of the diversity of their team and not fall into the "illusion of consensus" trap?  The goal of a team-based decision is to identify a problem or issue, surface divergent views, debate those views, then take a decision and act. There are a couple of things of which to be aware.  One is the influence that the first person to speak or the person who speaks most assertively on a team can have....people often line up behind those views.  The leader's expressed point of view can also greatly influence the degree to which a team is willing to diverge in their thinking...."the boss has made up her mind"   Subject matter experts can also affect the degree to which people are willing to present contrary views.  A short list of how to deal with these issues and insure divergent thinking includes:
1.  Designate a "devil's advocate".  A very senior person told me not long ago that in his board meetings he designates a devil's advocate to present a challenge to an emerging convergence of opinion.
2.  Know the style preferences and cultural nuances of your team members.  Rather than open dialogue, designate someone to lead the conversation who might otherwise defer to an assertive, first mover.
3.  "Listen for silence".  This is especially important in teleconferences.  If you haven't heard someone for some time on a conversation, invite their voice in.
4.  Know your people well enough to detect non-verbal signs of discomfort.  "Tom, I can tell you aren't comfortable with the way this conversation is headed.  Can you share with us what you are thinking?"
5.  Master the engagement skills of Inquiry, Advocacy, Mental Models and the Ladder of Inference.  
6.  Daniel Kahneman even suggests team members write out their point of view on agenda items before dialogue starts.  It's not practical for every agenda item in every meeting but for certain issues it is quite useful.
7.  Be choiceful about when you express your point of view as a leader.  If you truly are seeking divergence on an issue, guide the conversation but also let it flow.  If you have a strong point of view, acknowledge it up front and invite challenge. How you handle the challenge will determine to the degree to which people are later willing to do so.  If you hammer dissenting views into submission, don't expect challenges to your thinking in the future.  If you do have a strong point of view, withhold it and then later hammer disagreement into submission, don't expect much conversation in the future until you have spoken.
8.  Watch for weak signals that challenge your own mental models.  This can be especially important in mature teams where the leader's attitudes and views are well known and shared.  This makes it even harder to surface a dissenting view.
9.  Be cautious if your team agrees "too quickly" on a complicated issue.  Use your engagement skills to expose mental models and challenge assumptions the team are collectively making. 

Managing agreement requires just as much skill from the leader as managing disagreement.

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