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Published: 2008-03-26

Pros and Cons of Decision-Making by Committee

Organizational and group decision-making is a complex process. Certainly, all democratic governments rest on the assumption that the majority is right, or at least "righter" than the minority. Most organizations, however, have long found that majority decision-making, "one person-one vote," is not the way to efficiently run a business.

There was a period of time during which large businesses went to the other extreme, being primarily run by one autocratic manager. Today, organizations usually manage themselves by some form of committee. Corporations manage through a board of directors and usually also an operational management team; large legal departments may have a senior legal management team. Many law firms have a management committee, executive committee or board of directors.

The perceived advantages of relying on a managing group instead of one individual include access to the group's collective wisdom -- "several heads are better than one" -- as well as the ability to spread an increasing management workload over a number of people.

Recent behavioral science studies on group dynamics and perception throw new light on some of the pitfalls of management by committee but also provide insights into how these groups can best reach decisions.

Avoiding "Extreme" Group Decision-Making

In behavioral science, there is a well-documented propensity for small committees to drift toward "extreme" decisions, that is, a group of individuals acting as a committee often makes a decision that none of the individuals acting alone would make, given the same information. There seems to be a number of reasons for this tendency.

Diffusion of Responsibility. An individual's part in a group's decision weighs less heavily on him/her than an individual decision would because of the clear diffusion of responsibility, and the implication is that not as thorough an evaluation of the issues is made when the decision is attributed to the group. One method of mitigating this tendency is to identify an individual with each committee initiative, either as the instigator or the implementer of the decision, making at least one person answerable, if not accountable.

Ignoring the Lone Voice. Often small groups do not properly take into account the most relevant expertise in the room. As reported in The New York Times on June 28, 2005, Dr. Garold Stasser at Miami University of Ohio recently found that most small groups tend to make decisions based on the information all members share about a topic, overlooking important facts that one or several people may know but the others do not. A solitary opinion is often taken lightly or ignored in the flow of debate within the group. Yet management committees are usually looking for creative, out-of-the-box strategies that are not likely to be foremost in most committee members' thinking. Ralph Cordiner, the former chairman of General Electric, once said: "If you can name one great decision that was made by committee, I will find you the one person who had the lonely insight that solved the problem and was the basis for that decision." One of the things that leadership can do is make an extra effort to identify the person in the group who has the greatest expertise relating to the issues at hand, whether it is technology or outplacement, and insure that every opinion is heard.

Social Pressure. Another theory is that the social setting of the committee tends to propel the committee towards a decision, and the more bonded the group, the more committed they are to reaching one. "Once certain ideas or plans become salient or popular, the group often becomes overly focused on them," said Dr. Scott Tindale, a psychologist at Loyola University of Chicago. In order to please the group, or avoid confrontation, even hard-nosed litigators or corporate executives may agree to priorities or conclusions that should be reassessed. Enough time should be allowed outside of committee meetings for members to think over, and then rethink, issues and their urgency.

Competition. When committee members agree on the parameters of an issue, individuals may also tend to try to one-up each other by suggesting more and more extreme solutions, then promoting their solution as the best. "The idea is that your opinion functions in part to reflect well on you, to make you look good," said Dr. Moreland, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Again, leadership can play a role in making sure each person's views are represented, in part to help offset any individual's personal stake in adopting a specific solution.

Stress. Particularly when there is a great deal of pressure, groups act very much like individuals under stress, only more so. They often procrastinate, calling for further information, or become committed to bad decisions to save face or take other action primarily to protect themselves and each other against criticism. This type of pressure may account for the popular notion that committees tend to "split the baby," resulting in a less controversial solution that does not in fact work very well.

In a simulation, Dr. Beth Dietz-Uhler, a psychologist at Miami University of Ohio, analyzed the behavior of small groups of three or more people acting as city council members who had been asked to create a park on land donated by a wealthy resident. Later, information was provided that showed the land was contaminated, yet the council members, especially those most strongly bonded to the group, often stuck with their decision to build the park, apparently out of a stronger sense of loyalty to the team than to the community.

The recent turmoil at Morgan Stanley and the decisions made by its board of directors may well illustrate this "can't-let-go-of-a-bad-decision" phenomenon. Composed of strong-minded, business-savvy individuals, the board nonetheless, through months and months of defecting key personnel, intense business and media criticism, embarrassing legal imbroglios, disappointing financial results and stalled stock performance, closed ranks around Philip J. Purcell, the Chairman and CEO to whom most were closely allied, repeatedly refusing to consider the reassessments urged on the board by varying stakeholders, including its star performers. The clear impression was that management at Morgan Stanley did not promote or value dissenting viewpoints that (as it turns out) could have provided a useful counterpoint to the "group think" that held sway.

Thus the psychological forces exerting pressure on a management committee might incline it to take more high-risk action than would be optimal, but these same influences might also produce "extreme" decisions that are "too conservative," involving little or no action.

Seeing What Others Say

These findings on group decision-making dovetail in an interesting way with recent research on perception. That research determined that what those around you say may change in fact what you see.

A famous series of laboratory experiments from the 1950s conducted by social psychologist Dr. Solomon Asch showed that, if surrounded by people (7 in this case) who come to an apparently incorrect conclusion (about the relative length of lines in his experiment), 3 out of 4 people agree with the incorrect conclusion at least once and one in four conforms 50% of the time.

The important question that had been left unanswered in these experiments. Did the subjects of the experiments know that their answers were wrong or did the social pressure actually change their perceptions has now been resolved.

A new study using advanced brain-scanning technology shows that, in effect, believing is seeing what the group tells you that you see. The study, published in June 2005 in Biological Psychiatry and reported in the June 28, 2005 New York Times, suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level.

Subjects were asked to mentally rotate images of three-dimensional objects to determine if the objects were the same or different. Four confederates participated but only the subject gave his or her answers while being scanned by an MRI. On average, subjects agreed with the group on wrong answers 41% of the time. The brain activity of those who went along with the group was markedly different from those who took independent positions. When people concurred with wrong answers, activity increased in the area of the brain devoted to spatial awareness, meaning that their actual perceptions were being influenced. Those who made independent judgments showed activity in the region of the brain associated with conflict management, signifying an emotional toll for going against the group's perception.

Based on the results of this study, one of the potential major advantages of a group decision -- "several heads are better than one" -- can disappear if the group successfully co-opts individual insights. The most problematic part of these results is that not only does the group lose the "lone voices," but also the lone voices lose their very awareness of their differing perspectives. The change in their perception makes them incapable of raising their idiosyncratic flags.

Building the Optimal Management Group

As a practical matter, then, committee members need to be able to listen carefully to lone voices yet not give in to the peer pressure of what others on the committee think. It is a complex balancing act.

As pointed out above, there are certainly some strategies that leadership can employ to help groups avoid some of the -- group think -- forces that produce less than optimal decision-making. Leadership can make sure everyone is heard, that those speaking from particular strengths and expertise are identified and that their ideas are clearly articulated. Leadership can invest responsibility in individuals for evaluating, spearheading and implementing new initiatives, and they can allow sufficient time for each person to bring the full benefit of their analysis to the issues.

Leadership need not be "feel good" cheerleaders, though. While it is pleasant and in many ways beneficial to maintain a collegial atmosphere among the management group, it is not necessarily better for the group to be highly allied. Both a healthy dose of confidence in one's own contribution and a respectful "show me" skepticism towards others' viewpoints can be useful.

But there is only so much that leadership can do. Apart from identifying some of those leadership strategies, these studies highlight the importance to an organization of placing in management positions in the first place the types of individuals who are less likely to be unreasonably swayed by the psychological forces in play on a high-powered committee.

One of the attributes that can help committee members in this process is emotional intelligence. That may come as a surprise to lawyers steeped in the virtues of analytical thought, but the data on this front is incontrovertible: neuroscience has proved that rational decision-making is impaired if the area of the brain relating to emotions is excised. And research on emotional intelligence makes it clear that the ability to identify, use, understand and manage emotions -- both one's own and others' -- produces better decisions.

Another attribute of a "good team player" in this context is the ability to effectively make a strong individual opinion known to the group without creating a counterproductive backlash. In this scenario, conflict may be inevitable, and it often acts as the crucible that purges the chaff from the wheat. After the dust settles, members with the appropriate skills and ego strength will recognize the value of the interchange and then be able to find a collegial balance until the next set of issues arises.

Therefore, it appears that the optimal committee members are those who:

  • exhibit the character strengths of honesty and bravery, are high in emotional intelligence,
  • are aware of their unique expertises and perspectives,
  • are willing to speak out and promote their viewpoints,
  • are committed to applying the same rigor to making good group decisions as they would apply to making individual ones, and
  • possess the collaborative conflict skills to wrangle over a highly charged issue without seriously undermining his/her relationship with other committee members.

How do you find management candidates with these specific characteristics? Most corporations evaluate their personnel through a combination of reviews and assessments to determine those who are likely to possess leadership and other qualities, such as those traits mentioned above. In law firms, however, nominations to a management committee are often made on the basis of seniority, revenue-generation or availability of time, none of which takes into account any of these desirable traits. While attorneys often feel that they "know" their partners, rarely have any assessments been conducted that can verify those "hunches."

The good news is that, if an organization wants to improve their decision-making at the top, there are reliable methods to do so. Existing management committee styles and the roles that individual members play can be assessed and those individuals and attributes most likely to contribute to better decision-making can be identified. With an understanding of the psychological forces in play, the use of assessments measuring interaction styles, emotional intelligence, personal strengths and conflict styles can help identify the candidates who can best contribute to achieving effective and reliable decisions in any given organization.

Ronda Muir, Esq., a Senior Consultant with Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc., draws from law, psychology and conflict resolution to offer business-savvy, psychologically sophisticated evaluations of, and real-world solutions to, the personal dynamics issues that are unique to law firms and law departments.