The hope of all leaders who gather people for a decision-making meeting is that the collective brain power of the group will lead to a better decision. But just gathering people together in a room doesn’t automatically lead to more informed and better decisions.
In fact, very often the opposite happens: groups amplify errors. Instead of producing insight, you produce a bad meeting like what’s featured in the video below.
In this article, I examine what causes groups to make bad decisions and how you can fix bad meetings.
Lev Muchnik, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, carried out an experimentthat measured the influence of seeing the opinion of a peer before placing a vote. He conducted the experiment with users of a social networking site where users submitted articles that could then be voted up or down. For his study, he gave new articles one artificial up-vote and then measured the influence it had on future visitors. He discovered that giving an artificial up-vote made the next viewer 32% more likely to give an up-vote.
In meetings, how you collect opinions can unintentionally determine the outcome. For example, pretend you’re in a meeting where you’ll decide whether or not to go through with a new venture. The manager asks everyone to share their opinion. The first person to share, Bill, is in favor of the new venture. Your opinion is neutral, but you respect Bill, so you vote in favor of the new venture. The employee after you has doubts, but they aren’t conclusive so she goes along with the votes, assuming that you and Bill must know more than she does on the topic.
As this continues, people are influenced by the early votes. If everyone who had doubts about the venture had shared them, the outcome of the vote could have been entirely different. The temptation to follow the leader, especially if it is a manager,produces groupthink.
When a new idea is presented in a meeting, and you can see flaws in the idea, it would be critical for the group to know before taking action. People often succumb to social pressure and hold back negative information. An employee who pokes holes in a new idea risks being disliked or losing status with the group and, in addition, they might be wrong.
The most common example comes from the Bay of Pigs invasion. None of Kennedy’s aides expressed doubt or concerns beforehand, yet they existed. The advisers kept their doubts private, “partly out of a fear of being labeled ‘soft’ or undaring in the eyes of their colleagues.” The social pressure to express confidence in the idea led to a disaster.
Before anyone openly shares their opinion, they have to feel safe. No matter how much candor is encouraged in a workplace, the pressure to temper an opinion will still exist. One way to remove potential social pressure is through anonymous voting. It puts the entire focus on the idea instead of the person presenting it. There are several ways to enable anonymous voting and commenting though using an audience response appmakes it easy.
As several studies have shown, people are influenced by the opinions of others. By delaying the results of the poll until all votes have been cast, you further minimize outside influence. Additionally, instead of waiting until after a discussion to conduct a poll, conduct a poll both before and after discussion. This will help you measure how opinions changed due to discussions on a topic.
Even if your agenda is to have a free-flowing brainstorming session, having an agenda is important. An agenda provides direction and a goal for your meeting. Yes, this is obvious. Yes, this is often forgotten.
If Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it, applies to anything, it applies to meetings. If a meeting is scheduled for an hour, it doesn’t have to fill the hour. End the meeting as soon as your main goal is accomplished.
By assigning someone the role of devil’s advocate, you make them more comfortable sharing feedback that exposes flaws in an idea. If you also have a forum for anonymous comments at meetings, you can enable everyone to voice their doubts without fear of losing status with the group.
It’s easy to dismiss meetings as only a waste of time, yet there are companies like Pixar that successfully use meetings to generate creative ideas. Whether or not your meetings are effective largely depends on your ability to lead the meeting towards a productive goal. Following these five tips will make your journey towards a productive meeting a little easier.
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