Four strategies to help your team make great decisions

In our last newsletter, we explored the marvel of the human brain and the intricacies of decision-making, highlighting the experience of decision paralysis and strategies to overcome it.

This month, we shift our focus to team dynamics, examining effective strategies that teams can employ to enhance their collective decision-making abilities. Join us as we delve into actionable strategies to create a more inclusive, balanced and innovative environment that enables teams to make high-performing decisions.

Cara McCarthy and Rose Padfield

What gets in the way of great team decision-making?

We’ve no doubt all encountered one or more of the common pitfalls that teams face as they strive to make decisions together. Understanding these pitfalls is crucial for developing strategies to overcome them and enhance team dynamics.

Four of the usual suspects are:

  • Groupthink – when the desire for harmony creates pressure to conform, suppresses dissension and overshadows the quality of the decision
  • Overconfidence – where groups ignore potential risks or alternative solutions, disregard external input, underestimate challenges and overestimate capability
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to selectively gather information, ignore contrary evidence and reinforce preconceptions
  • Settling – quick agreement on the first acceptable solution rather than a thorough exploration of alternatives

Four strategies that will transform your team into a decision-making dynamo

  1. Create the conditions for brilliance

Informed, balanced and creative decisions arise out of the quality of thinking that people do together. Good thinking doesn’t automatically occur; it requires a healthy ‘container’ to focus and channel it. Set your team up for success by paying attention to the factors that determine how strong their container is:

  • Trust: The key ingredient to building psychological safety in groups. Build trust, and combat the pitfalls of groupthink and overconfidence, by consistently demonstrating that people have full permission to speak candidly, offer challenge, ask questions and share ideas. No idea is a bad idea. When people feel their contribution is valued, they will speak up. When things go wrong, reinforce psychological safety by asking one open, growth-minded question: ‘What did you/we learn?’
  • Clear boundaries: Start with a well-defined vision or a clear statement of the problem that needs solving. Establish the ground rules for engagement, ensuring everyone contributes to what these are, so that they are understood and embraced by all. Clarify roles and responsibilities so everyone has sight of what they are accountable for and can identify the most effective routes for collaboration. Be upfront about who gets to make the final decision and how much scope people have to influence, shape or determine the outcome.
  • Group dynamics: Stay attentive to your team’s interactions and act quickly to reset poor dynamics before unproductive patterns set in. Be quick to give constructive feedback and create permission for everyone in the group to do the same. A team in which everyone holds both themselves and their colleagues to account will outperform most others!
  1. Maximise the value of diversity of thought and help your team to navigate the tensions diversity can bring

That heterogenous groups make better decisions than homogenous groups is well reported. Numerous studies back this up:

  • Groups with cognitively diverse membership benefit from greater processing power and increased information exchange, leading to more accurate, innovative and balanced decisions.
  • Cognitive diversity scuttles the pitfalls of confirmation bias and settling, so think about how you can best leverage the breadth of experience, backgrounds and thinking styles of the people in your team.
  • Teams that can explore opposing points of view can more effectively counter biases and will be better at exploring alternatives before settling on an outcome. You want to get a 360-degree view of the issue to see it from different angles. 

While diversity is desirable, we have to acknowledge that it can present teams with certain challenges. Groups that have broader cultural diversity can struggle to negotiate between different decision-making norms and communication styles. In global teams, language can often present a barrier and even subtle differences in how common phrases are understood can lead to misunderstanding.

Many of the same studies also highlight that diverse groups tend to experience more conflict and tension, leading to reduced social cohesion. This shouldn’t surprise us. When we all think differently, it’s unrealistic to expect we will get along all the time.

It’s important to remain alert to how this might show up in your team. In my own experience, the more diverse a team, the more skill and support they may need to constructively navigate between differences in viewpoints and even values.

Team development days, facilitated by an experienced team coach, can be a safe, constructive and enjoyable environment to name, with curiosity and without judgement, some of the cultural differences as they show up in language and team interactions.

Training in conflict resolution, peer to peer coaching skills and constructive feedback techniques are all excellent skillsets that can boost your team’s confidence to have constructive discussions about what is getting in the way of team cohesion and overall performance.

  1. Encourage strategic dissent

The desire for consensus can lead teams to underevaluate an issue, overlook assumptions, ignore relevant data and generate less creative solutions. Healthy conflict, which can be as simple as a respectful difference in viewpoint, should be encouraged.

Leaders need to help their teams to get comfortable with not always agreeing, and role model doing this in a balanced, friendly and professional way.

There are any number of strategic, yet simple methods that could help achieve healthy dissent:

  • Appoint a strategic dissenter or ‘devil’s advocate’ to act as a counterbalance to the group’s tendency to achieve consensus. Research shows that empowering at least one person with the right to challenge the team’s decision-making process can lead to significant improvements in decision quality and outcomes. But don’t make it the same person every time!
  • Get inspired by Dr Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats approach and rotate the ‘black hat’ around the group. ‘Black hat’ thinking (also known as the risk management hat) taps into the value of scanning for risks, noticing red flags and identifying danger zones in a group’s decision-making. With this increased awareness, the group can anticipate future dilemmas, avoid unnecessary risk and better assess their options.
  • Run a ‘dumb questions’ exercise. Have everyone write down a question they imagine someone else (or they!) might feel is too stupid, simple or obvious to ask. You might be surprised by the new insights this reveals.
  • Appoint an ‘assumptions monitor’ to simply listen to the conversation for an agreed period. At an appointed time, ask that person what assumptions they have noted people making. For example, you might discover that you have all assumed that the customer service teams have been made aware of a change to delivery lead times. As a result, you decide to assign someone in your team to verify this.
  1. Disrupt stale communication patterns

Teams can easily fall into patterns of communication that no longer support good thinking. The family therapist and organisational consultant David Kantor identified that every discussion, every conversation and every meeting contain unseen signals that can generate success or failure.

He developed a simple yet powerful framework called the Four Player Model for analysing and improving team communication. The model identifies four distinct actions that individuals tend to make in group interactions: Move, Follow, Oppose and Bystand.

In a healthy conversation you need all four actions present:

  • Movers initiate ideas and actions
  • Followers support and add to those ideas
  • Opposers challenge and critique to ensure thorough evaluation
  • Bystanders provide perspective and context.

Exploring these actions can help teams gain insights into their communication patterns and recognise when they are stuck in unproductive cycles.

For instance, team discussions dominated by Moves and Follows may lack critical evaluation, while one with too many Opposes may struggle to reach consensus. The value of the Bystand action is often overlooked. Naturally observant individuals often fail to recognise the need for their reflective, perspective-taking approach and may instead stay silent.

While coaching a senior leadership team, I used the Four Player Model to unlock why their conversations generally followed the same frustrating pattern. The model helped each leader identify which of the four actions they tended to gravitate towards and to appreciate they had a wider choice of actions that could take the discussion in new directions.

What next?

Why not run a Four Player session with your team to help individuals to identify the roles they routinely take up, give the team insight into why they repeat the same old patterns, and help them generate strategies to communicate more productively?

Cara and Rose are accredited coaches who work with many teams to develop essential ‘teaming’ skills, support and improve positive dynamics, resolve issues undermining team performance and navigate transition and transformation. If you’d like to explore how we could help your team to achieve their potential and be the best they can be, please reach out to us.

Contact us here to find out more.

Try this

Watch Ricardo Fernandez’s honest and entertaining talk about the everyday complexities of managing a team of 30 people from very different cultures and backgrounds, with the added challenge of remote working, in his TEDx talk Managing Cross Cultural Remote Teams

Or learn more about a simple, effective and fun method of viewing an issue from all available angles in this video from BigIdeasGrowingMinds, Six Thinking Hats By Edward de Bono

Read the classic Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders, by David Kantor, renowned systems psychologist and family therapist. An essential for any leader’s library!

Related/further reading

If you found this information useful, you might enjoy our related articles:

Next month

We’ll be back next month with a fresh topic! Enjoy the Summer in the meantime!

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