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The reality of group decisions: what is the cost of self-silencing?



What does social pressure feel like?

Visualise this situation: you are in a meeting with colleagues, some new people and a senior person (or a client) you want to impress. There is a specific topic for discussion and everybody is expected to contribute their opinion. The objective is for the group to take a decision, there is a lot at stake and the pressure is rising. During the discussion, a majority of opinion is forming within the group and it is your turn to talk. Your opinion is different from the majority. What do you do?

Do you recognise this situation? Have you ever asked people to be open in their opinions, but they have kept quiet for fear of being a dissenting voice? Have you sometimes decided not to share an alternative opinion? It is more usual than we think, and it can damage the quality of business decisions.

This type of social pressure stops people voicing opinions which are different from the majority. It is called self-silencing.

Why do we self-silence?

People self-silence because they fear damage to their reputation if they state an opinion different from the majority.

It is important to note that disagreement goes against natural human behaviour. People want to be liked and respected, dissent can isolate from others.

This is what self-silencing looks like:

  • People keep quiet because they think their minority held view is false, and don’t want to look silly. When other people, especially if they claim expertise of the subject, all think the same, how can I possibly be right?

  • The fear of disapproval can stop voicing alternative opinions. Some companies have a reputation for suppressing dissent, but it can happen in any organisation. Reflect on these questions: what happens to people who go against the flow in your company? What are the repercussions if you disagree with a senior leader? What happens to employee who raise a genuine concern in a whistleblowing case?

  • The reluctance to speak is greater among individuals in junior roles and those who may be biased against due to gender, race, age and education. Given the value of diversity of ideas, the missed contribution of people on the quality of decisions has a major impact.

… and so we follow the majority

Groupthink is a popular concept associated with the dangers of conformity. Members identify with each other and this creates a vested interest to maintain the integrity and cohesiveness of the group. The social identity in turn gives members a strong sense of commitment to a course of action. This commitment is felt strongly even when the action may be failing. A strong social identity can also lead to group polarisation. Once most of the group share the same opinion, the effects of groupthink are reinforced: people persuade each other that the chosen option is preferable to any other.

People dislike being the dissenting voice and tend to follow the majority.

Can we reduce social pressure?

The effects of social pressure on the quality of business decisions are numerous and negative. Although the source of social pressure is the need to be liked and belong to a group, there is a lot that companies can do reduce this pressure. They can lower the fear of disapproval, create an environment that helps junior people to contribute and reduce the bias towards some groups.

The impact of social pressure in group decisions is particularly negative because diversity of opinion is a major determinant of better corporate decisions.

Do you want to learn more about decision-making and how to become a more successful decision-maker? Get in touch giorgia@choiceanddesign.com

How to find out more

My research has identified three sources of behavioural influences which have a negative impact on quality of decisions: unshared information, social pressure and cascades. Recognising these influencing factors is the first step towards improving the decision process.

The subject of my next article is the cascade effect. If you want to be a step ahead, and discuss decision-making and behavioural change in your organisation, contact me

References:

Carter, Simkins and Simpson (2003). Corporate Governance, Board Diversity, and Firm Value. Financial Review, 38(1), 33-53.

Erhardt, Werbel and Shrader (2003). Board of Director Diversity and Firm Financial Performance. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 11(2), 102-111.

Francoeur, Labelle and Sinclair-Desgagné (2008). Gender Diversity in Corporate Governance and Top Management. Journal of Business Ethics, 81(1), 83-95.

Turner and Pratkanis (1998). A Social Identity Maintenance Model of Groupthink. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2-3), 210-235.

Turner, Pratkanis and Struckman (2007). Groupthink as Social Identity Maintenance in Pratkanis, A. R. (Ed.). (2007). The science of social influence : advances and future progress

Sunstein and Hastie (2008). Four Failures of Deliberating Groups In. Chicago: University of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 401

Sunstein and Hastie (2015). Wiser. Getting beyond groupthink to make groups smarter. In. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press.


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