How leaders create conditions for inclusion, psychological safety and excellent team decisions

23. September 2022 - By Stuart Schofield, Client Director & Christina Ottsen, Senior Consultant, Mannaz Share

When team members feel like they have an equal share of the conversation, better decision are made. For a variety of reasons, team members will sometimes choose not to speak up – maybe they don’t want to disagree with people they think might be better informed, perhaps they want to avoid looking out of step or uninformed themselves. Regardless, the temptation to self-censor is a very powerful human trait and unfortunately, when it comes to teams, it can also directly impact the quality of our decisions.

As we work with others, we have a choice. We might choose to wear a ‘mask of professionalism’ that might help us to smooth over, yet ultimately avoid, some of the more complex and messy realities of being in a team. This is a personal strategy and it might serve us well from time to time. It affords us credibility, creates confidence in our judgement and might spur others to show ‘their best professional selves’ at work too. However, when we share our mistakes, admit to not having the answers or speak up about our concerns, we might find that we gain something else – something far more advantageous. We might be creating the conditions for psychological safety and in doing so, increasing our combined potential to move to a much more productive, creative and effective place.

The leader can play an important role here. They can actively strive to include others, bring all opinions to the table and create the feeling that each team member has an equal share in the conversation. Below we give three examples of how team leaders might do this. Each example illustrates how a leader can help each team member take a more equal share of the conversation.

 

Psychological safety increases our combined potential to move to a much more productive, creative and effective place.

 

1. Actively manage agreement

Agreement is not as easy to manage as you might think. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this:

A Texan couple were visiting their parents. While they were relaxing one Sunday afternoon, the wife’s father suggested that they all drive to Abilene for dinner. The son-in-law dreaded the hot, dusty 53-mile drive, but said ‘yes’ anyway to avoid being rude. The wife and mother-in-law both said it sounded good to them, so off they went to Abilene. The problem was that nobody actually wanted to go! So, when the food turned out to be terrible, the family returned home and immediately started to complain. The mother-in-law quickly pointed out that it had been a bad idea, soon followed by the wife. The son-in-law objected, saying that he never wanted to go and was only being polite. Finally, the father-in-law said he only suggested it because he thought it was something the younger couple might have wanted to do. What a wasted trip!

This story actually happened to Jerry B Harvey, Professor Emeritus of Management at George Washington University, and it led to the widespread use of the term ‘The Abilene Paradox’ – a common way to describe why group agreement is not always a good thing.

The Abilene Paradox happens when a group of people collectively decides on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of most people in the group. It’s usually about disagreement that is actively hidden. It describes a very human need to prefer cohesiveness over separation. The gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch convincingly describes this need through his famous conformity experiments of the mid 20th century. It is also unsurprising that people also give disproportionate weight to the opinions of those who are in more senior positions, or simply those who speak first.

The Abilene Paradox could be described as an inability to manage agreement. We take agreement at face value and we assume we know what is in the minds of those we are working with – “If there is no dissent, we must all be thinking the same thing”.

This is a problem for teams, and for team leaders in particular. This is because we all benefit more from hearing counter perspectives.

For example, we have all had that feeling of leaving a meeting feeling slightly suspicious that not everything was being said – a nagging fear that we didn’t really consider all the alternatives. To manage the Abilene Paradox, leaders might therefore try the following:

  • Be suspicious if there is no dissent. Never assume you know what is going on in the heads of other team members. Agreement can feel wonderful in the moment, but we should ask ourselves ‘how many ideas might have been sacrificed to the god of politeness?’
  • Equally, be suspicious of your own certainty. The more convinced you are of your own arguments, the less likely you might be to encourage others to offer their own contributions
  • Take steps to build an atmosphere of psychological safety. For example, former US President Barack Obama was particularly aware of collaboration across status divides. He would often highlight the young and less confident experts in order to avoid them becoming silent followers.(1)

 

We all benefit more from hearing counter perspectives.

 

2. Enable healthy disagreement

For leaders, disagreement can also be a huge challenge to manage. Much like the Abilene Paradox, when it’s managed well, it can significantly improve decision-making in teams.

At Mannaz, we have seen this first-hand. For example, when working with teams, we often see groups as a whole consistently outperform any given individual who belongs to that group. These experiments are simple. An individual tries to solve a problem alone, then brings their solution to the wider group to get consensus. Whether the task is a typical survival dilemma or an organisational change case study, when a group has to work together to strategise their responses to complex dilemmas, though individuals often do well, they are almost always outperformed by the group they are in. We have also noticed that the more discussion, debate and disagreement we see in these groups, the more the group will outperform its individual members.

The groups themselves might not always feel positive about the team’s cohesiveness. However, a team’s level of disagreement doesn’t inevitably have a negative correlation with a team’s performance. Indeed, the famous psychologist Bruce Tuckman suggests that all successful teams would need to go through a period of ‘Storming’ in their early stages if they were to eventually succeed.

Similarly, at MIT there is an entire Center for the Study of Collective Intelligence(2). And through several studies, they have concluded that differences within a team can make all the difference. The centre’s research has shown that collaboration among diverse workers will often drive the most successful results.

Yet, diverse perspectives being aired is not enough. As a leader of teams, it is key to manage this disagreement productively. First and foremost, ensure that team members are taking the ‘personal’ out of the disagreement. The key to better decision-making, according to Adam Grant (3), is developing a weaker attachment to our own ideas or views. If we separate our identity from our opinions and attitudes, it becomes much easier to challenge and change each other’s opinions and attitudes. Here are a few suggestions to help leaders manage disagreement more effectively:

  • When we hear a team member say something that doesn’t feel correct, we should refrain from immediately giving the counterargument or guessing what their assumptions might have been. Instead, we should simply ask questions – we might be surprised by what we find out. When disagreements do appear, there is also a wonderful opportunity for the group to learn more about its own process. Following team meetings with after-action-reviews can be a great way to capture this.
  • Team leaders and team members should be vigilant in inviting others to contribute. As a leader, we should actively ask for the input of team members, acknowledge their contribution and, even if we don’t agree with what they are saying, we can still offer gratitude for them expressing their opinions.
  • Finally, leaders might even search for information that contradicts their own world view or the team’s predominate world view. They might even encourage team members to ‘kill some sacred cows’ along the way.

 

Collaboration among diverse workers will often drive the most successful results.

 

 3. Demonstrate intellectual humility

Another tool you can use to ensure that all team members have an equal share in the conversation is to show that you too can doubt your own judgement from time to time. No one knows everything and when you are humble about your own judgement, it can really help to open up dialogue.

If a leader is vulnerable, it can feel more permissible for team members to have a voice. In addition, vulnerability also serves the team leader. Dacher Keltner’s many studies of the ‘Power Paradox’ show that individuals who take their own status for granted are more likely to be affected by bias than others. Therefore, leaders in particular should work actively to allow healthy amounts of doubt to creep in as it will help keep their biases in check(4).

In fact, leaders should nurture and maintain what is being called ‘the gift of doubt’. Though doubt is uncomfortable and makes big decisions harder, it also improves your decisions because it makes everyone check their assumptions, slow down and involve others more. In this way, collective intelligence is built and better still, more durable decisions become more likely. Here are a few suggestions that might help leaders access their intellectual humility:

  • Where appropriate, communicate your lack of knowledge or understanding. This kind of honesty can reveal a human side that may increase the chances of others also sharing their concerns. However, we may at times need to consider carefully how much vulnerability we wish to show. We should be ourselves, but with due thought and consideration.
  • Spend some time in self-reflection. You can train yourself to demonstrate intellectual humility by making it a habit to think about your own limitations – not berating yourself for having them but recognising that you, like everyone else, have areas where you are less adept, skilled, or knowledgeable.
  • Do not distance yourself from your critics. It’s important that you are exposed to those who might have a different mental model. Perhaps you have someone in your network who might be relied upon to contradict and correct you, especially when you begin to believe that you are ‘the smartest one in the room’.

 

When you are humble about your own judgement, it can really help to open up dialogue.

Conclusion

We have all heard the slogan ‘fake it till you make it!’. Though helpful in some contexts, it’s unhelpful in others. And it’s a slogan that flies in the face of what we’ve been talking about in this article. After all, if we truly want the full and committed contribution of all team members, what we really want is for them to speak up, as their authentic selves. What we don’t want is for them to wear a mask of professionalism so tight that it muzzles the very contributions we need from them.

It’s easy to understand why we might want to protect ourselves from interpersonal risk and stay quiet. Team leaders who are simply trying to ‘take the lead’ with gusto may in fact be creating fewer chances for others to contribute. Team members may simply be reluctant to take a share of the conversations because they are afraid of ‘making a fuss’, ‘creating waves’, being wrong or simply disagreeing.

However, there are strategies to avoid these traps and we hope some of the tips offered here are useful for those leaders who really do want to see the very best from their teams.

After all, if we don’t speak up, it’s not just the team that loses out, it might also be whole organisation.

 

Want to know more?

 

References 
  1. Sunstein, C., & Hastie, R. (2015). Wiser, Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
  2. Woolley, A.W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T.W. (2015). Collective Intelligence and Group Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 420–424. MIT center for collective intelligence https://cci.mit.edu
  3. Grant A. (2021). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. New York: Viking.
  4. Keltner, D. (2016). The Power Paradox – How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Press, 2016 & Deffler, S.A., Leary, M.R., & Hoyle, R.H. (2016). Knowing What you know: Intellectual Humility and Judgments of Recognition Memory. Personality and Individual Differences, 96, 255–259.

 

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About Stuart Schofield

Stuart Schofield, Client Director, is a chartered occupational psychologist who has spent over 25 years working in the field of Leadership Development.

He is currently based in the UK and does most of his work with European organisations but has previously lived and worked in Hong Kong where he regularly travels across the region to provide consulting to a variety of different cultures.

While his early career saw him specialise in leadership assessment (assessing over 500 leaders across a number of sectors) he has more lately developed a deeper interest in leadership, team effectiveness, and the neuroscience of trust.

Contact Stuart at ssc@mannaz.com or +44 7990 036110

About Christina Ottsen

Christina Ottsen, Senior Consultant, is a cognitive psychologist specialised in diversity and inclusive leadership.

She is author of a book on cognitive bias and leadership – providing tools and knowledge for better decision-making through increased allyship, cultural awareness and collaboration across gender.

Christina has a Ph.D. in cross-cultural diversity, and through research in memory, she has built up knowledge about the psychological mechanisms behind bias and decision-making processes.

Contact Christina at cot@mannaz.com or +45 2682 8885