How to improve your group decisions by avoiding biases

While there are clear benefits associated with a group decision-making process, there are also some pitfalls to watch out for – namely biases that can emerge.  By Story Dealy Cottrell.

Why do we often bring together a group of people to tackle an important decision, instead of just relying on one particularly clever person? Over 2,300 years ago the philosopher Aristotle proposed that: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In group-decision making today, we are still discovering evidence for this concept.

Compared to an individual, groups bring deeper knowledge and wider resources to a problem, increasing the likelihood that a group decision is of higher quality than an individual one1. Group members are able to look at problems from diverse perspectives and provide specific insights based on their expertise, therefore increasing their collective capability. 

For example, a Kiwi company is considering providing its services in Australia, a new market for the business. Given the risks and opportunities, instead of placing all the responsibility for this decision on a single individual, this company would benefit from creating a project team with multiple team members, each bringing expertise in areas relevant to the decision such as sales, operations, digital and finance.

While there are clear benefits associated with a group decision-making process, there are also some pitfalls to watch out for.

Within group situations, biases can emerge – an inclination towards a particular opinion or behaviour that is unfair or disproportionate. The phenomenon known as groupthink is an example of bias. It can occur where the drive for cohesiveness and consensus overcomes the desire to reach the best possible outcome.

Biases can arise as people have a need to fit in and to do what is socially acceptable to the group, they can also lead to situations where group decision-making performance does not reach its potential. Biases can be affected by factors including relationships, hierarchy within the group and situational context. 

Let’s explore how to get the best out of your group decisions, while minimising the risk of biases.
Shared information bias
When you’re sharing with your decision-making group, how much of the time do you spend discussing shared information already known by other group members compared to hidden profile information only known by one group member?1 Studies suggest that you are far more likely to focus on the shared information.

 This shared information bias can be a cause of poorer decision-making, as group members focus more on information that is widely known and considered to be more significant. This bias is more likely to occur as those with unshared information do not even realise that their information is not commonly known.

Our example company’s project team all have a good understanding of their competitors’ service offerings in Australia (shared information) to inform their discussion. Whereas one member, Lisa, who is their expert in digital, is the only one who understands the investment and time required to implement their technology stack.

If Lisa does not articulate this well, or the team does not give this hidden profile information enough attention, it will skew the decision they make.
To tackle shared information bias, leaders should encourage contributions from those that might see things differently:
•    Leaders should acknowledge that different viewpoints and opinions are required and encourage group members to share any information that might contribute to the decision-making process.
•    Encourage group members to share information whether they think it is important or not.
•    Ensure that your group is attending not just to the commonly held information but to any unique information too.
•    If someone has a different area of expertise, acknowledge this as it will make it easier for them to speak up and be heard.
Psychological safety
Although biases are common, they are not inevitable. To reduce the risk of biases within your team’s decision-making you can create a psychologically safe space to offer suggestions and speak up. Team members should be actively encouraged to reflect on and discuss divergent opinions, doubts, and experiences in a respectful manner, offering curiosity.

 Tactics include:
•    Providing feedback on the discussion not on the individual.
•    Expressing comments as a suggestion, not as a mandate.
•    Sharing feedback that demonstrates empathy and appreciation for the individual’s working towards the joint goal.

Our example company’s project team have agreed to work towards creating a safe space for disagreement and have used this list as their operating rules.

 Where there is a better quality decision-making process and interaction between the group members, there is a greater chance of reaching a successful outcome. 
A devil’s advocate
This term originates from the role of a Roman Catholic official whose duty was to critically examine the evidence behind proposed beatification or canonisation.

As a defence against bias, a group member can be appointed as the devil’s advocate. Their role is to challenge all information put forward and provide alternative perspectives or, at least, question any assumptions to spark healthy debate.

Enhancing both cognitive diversity and other dimensions of diversity among the group members will mitigate the risks of groupthink associated with homogeneous groups. Diverse members will provide diverse perspectives and viewpoints and provide more information to make an informed decision.

When the example company was recruiting for their project team, ensuring that they introduced members with potential for wider diversity of thought alongside relevant skills and experience, enhanced the decision-making process, and mitigated some of the associated risks of biases.

Biases can stem from the need for cohesion and consensus in your group. It is important to consider these and be aware of how they may impact your decisions. Promote a psychologically safe climate to allow all members to feel safe and openly share ideas. Share all the information you have even if it does not align with the group majority and lastly enhance cognitive diversity in your group to allow for different perspectives and viewpoints that will contribute to effective decision-making.  

Story Dealy Cottrell is the Research Fellow for DOT Scorecard, a consultancy that works with teams facing complexity to measure their diversity of thought and improve their decision-making. 

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