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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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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.