The Consensus Curse

None of us is as dumb as all of us!

UnityRemember when motivational posters were all the rage? offers a satirical take on motivational posters – using the same magnificent images but the captions underneath are less than motivating.

Take, for example their poster titled “MEETINGS” — beneath a photo of many hands apparently working together is the caption:

“Because none of us is as dumb as all of us.”

That satire actually holds greater truth than previously realized! When team members are too similar in experiences and perspectives, that team’s analysis and decision-making is actually worse than that of an individual working alone.

Jumping To Conclusions

As humans, we usually form a conclusion before all the information is in (it’s part of being human). Our minds then discount subsequent information that conflicts with our conclusion. So the longer we can delay a conclusion, the better our minds give fair weigh all the available information.

So why might like-minded teams make worse decisions? It all comes down to what is called “Task Conflict.” Task Conflict refers to diversity in perspectives and reward systems (i.e. bonus and promotion measures) that exists among team members.

We assume a team’s analysis is better than an individual’s analysis because many minds are working on the problem. That is true when Task Conflict is at least moderate, that is, team members have significantly different perspectives and reward systems (performance and bonus metrics). Reaching a conclusion takes longer while differing opinions clash, so more information is given proper attention and higher quality conclusions result.

New research has found, however, that a team with low Task Conflict (members have similar perspectives) jump to conclusions even faster than an individual does, so even less of the available information is given fair weigh than had an individual worked on the problem alone. To make matters worse, the low Task Conflict team is now more vulnerable to Groupthink, highly resistant to reconsidering their premature conclusion.

Check Your Source

The next time you are a evaluating critical proposal put forward by a team, don’t assume their quality is better than an a sole individual simply because it was a team effort. Evaluate their breath of perspective (i.e. Task Conflict) and, if too similar, beware!

Decision-makers have to get out in front of the process to get the quality information they deserve. For big decisions:

  • Demand that teams are formed with Task Conflict in mind.
  • Require that they notice how early in their due diligence they seem to be coming to a conclusion.
  • Task an independent observer to review the subsequent information received and raise concern if it conflicts with the recommended course of action.

P.S. More of a good thing is not always better. High task conflict caused by opposing goals and little understanding of others can cause severe team dysfunctions, and failure to reach any conclusions.

© Dave Wittenberg