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The smart guide to successful inclusive decision making

How to guide by Freddie Alves, 24 JAN 2017

It’s not uncommon to see corporate teams that don’t function as well as they should or could. What’s more, this underperformance often becomes more apparent during crucial times of decision making.

Turning this situation around and ensuring your teams make the best decisions when faced with complex problems may be simpler than you think. Freddie Alves, Managing Director at innovative coaching consultancy Talking Talent outlines three keys to success:

1. Assemble a small group with a rich ‘diversity of thinking’
’Diversity of thinking’ includes differences in education, training, experience, expertise, information, work preferences and motivations. High levels of thinking diversity ensure that a team has a range of tools and information to solve problems effectively.

Social category diversity (e.g. nationality or gender) and diversity of thinking frequently go together, but not always. It is possible to have a team where the members look the same but think differently. Likewise, it is possible to have a team whose members look different but think the same.

Why do diverse thinking teams generally outperform one smart person? An individual, with a single perspective, will tend to make bigger errors in judgment than a team with diverse perspectives. Unless the problems faced are very simple – then over time multiple inputs win out in reaching accurate conclusions. All organisations can recruit smart people but they often fail to appreciate the significance of team diversity in reducing errors and managing risk.

2. Work hard to surface all the relevant information and avoid bias (Inclusion)
Bringing together diversity of thinking in a team is not enough. Teams need processes and behaviours which ensure the diversity can have an impact. This is ‘inclusion’ at work.

Teams have a natural tendency to focus on shared information i.e. things that everyone on the team already knows. This feels like safe ground and is comfortable. But, quality decision making requires revealing insights or perspectives that only one person may have. We need team members to share all of their information, including dissenting views. Individuals hold back their unique insights for many reasons, including fear of challenging someone of higher status, giving way to a perceived expert or to avoid conflict with a peer. It is essential to overcome these barriers to fully unlock the diversity of thinking that is present within that team.

Teams perform better when they are trained to openly gather and evaluate different ideas. Good team leaders ‘extract’ information from all the team members, including introverts and those with less status and tenure. Leaders who work hard to unearth all the options and alternatives tend to score high marks from their teams and generate better decisions.

3. Make team decisions in an independent and unbiased fashion
Once the team has surfaced all the options available in making the decision, the leader should make sure team members remain independent in voicing their opinion. How the team ‘votes’ makes a big difference to the quality of the decision. Independence and quality are compromised by practices such as:

  • The leader voicing their opinion first
  • An “expert” or the most senior team member being asked to speak first
  • Publically going around the room. This pressures people to conform to what has already been said, especially if they are relatively new, inexperienced or junior.

Over time, teams may develop a culture where people can speak up independently in all circumstances. Initially, leaders of new teams should be very active in selecting diverse thinking teams and getting the most from them through inclusive practices.

Even when leaders see the final decision as their personal responsibility, the first two steps will equip them to make more informed choices.

So, what can you do as a leader?

  1. Selecting a new project team
    • Ask yourself, given what this team needs to achieve, what kinds of diversity of thinking would be most important?
    • Ask other people what they think about the diversity most useful to have in the team.
    • Don’t select the “usual suspects”, those you are most familiar with. Look across organisational and geographic boundaries if it might help to develop the best solutions.
    • Since differences in social categories within the team, such as gender, are frequently linked to diversity of thinking and team performance, build this into your choices.
  2. Surfacing all the relevant information and avoiding bias (Inclusion)
    • Pay attention to social dynamics in the team to avoid the formation of an in-group or clique which dominates the work. This is especially likely in larger teams.
    • Discuss with the team the importance of sharing perspectives and dissenting views.
    • Set expectations for inclusive behaviour in the team such as active listening, asking each other for opinions, avoiding early judgments, encouraging people to raise concerns etc.
    • Be the strongest role model for those behaviours.
    • Take into account the seniority, cultural differences, confidence, extraversion, communication and language skills of all the team members. Actively invite contributions from everyone and make sure that they are listened to.
    • If the team is operating virtually you will have to be especially active in ensuring that communications and discussions include everyone.
    • Pay particular attention to reading the emotions of team members. This will help you to recognise whether people feel engaged, included and able to contribute.
    • When the team reaches a key milestone, consider bringing in “critical friends” from outside the group to provide objective peer review and a check for ‘Group Think’.
  3. Make decisions in an independent and unbiased fashion
    • Consider using an independent facilitator for the decision making discussion
    • Avoid giving your own opinion first.
    • Don’t allow one or two people to dominate the decision making discussion – especially in the early stages.
    • If the team is responsible for making a decision, consider using some form of private voting to encourage people to register an independent conclusion.

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