People tend to get easily frustrated by group meetings. And how can we blame them? The vast majority of meetings we’ve attended throughout our lives have been less than uplifting, to say the least. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in modern society who would tell you that they actually enjoy attending meetings. “Oh no. Not another meeting!” Or, “I look forward to meetings. They help me catch up on my sleep.” Cliches abound in modern culture that attest to our abhorrence of meetings.
Part of this problem though can be attributed to our pervasive ignorance of the complexities of facilitating group thought. Most tend to think that the groups they lead, or are part of, should operate just as efficiently as they do individually. This is in fact untrue. Further, the belief in this fallacy by your typical meeting-goer contributes to harsh judgment upon themselves and other participants, leading to apathy, inaction, and the continual self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don’t work.
Shining some light on the complexities of group dynamics and looking at things that typically go wrong in groups can help us better appreciate the challenges and opportunities presented to us whenever we meet collectively.
Why are groups so complicated?
Groups of individuals are far more likely to err than individuals. Groups give reign to
instincts which individuals acting alone are forced to keep in check.
— T.B. Macaulay, English author and statesman —
Complexities of Group Mind
It seems obvious that when a number of individual minds come together, more complexity emerges simply out of the shear increase in the number of inputs, outputs, and interconnections available. There are more ideas in the room, far more for each individual to keep track of, and there are more relationship dynamics present together packaged with their spoken and unspoken assumptions and prejudices.
Because of this increase in complexity, there exist the capacity for synergy to emerge, where the capability of the group exceeds the sum of its parts. But given that groups are more complex and their interactions are often faulty, they are harder to manage. For this reason, synergy rarely emerges by accident. Just as easily, and more often than not, groups tend to drift toward collective incompetence.
George Kieffer, in his book, The Strategy of Meetings, explains this phenomenon beautifully in the following metaphor…
You cannot afford to view meetings as likely in and of themselves to culminate in positive results without a great deal of work. Meetings are inherently risky enterprises, mobs in waiting, more susceptible to passions, pieties, persuasion, and manipulation of all kinds and degrees than are the individuals who participate in them. Meetings begin with the same risk of injury as a motor vehicle containing a steering wheel at each passenger seat.
Therefore, it’s very important to recognize the inherent limitations of group thought, that we elaborate on below, and yet maintain respect and appreciate for both the process and the particular individuals in attendance.
Limitations of Group Mind
Group Amnesia. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, in studying the human mind has found that the most that we can hold in short-term memory without forgetting something is six or seven pieces of data. Therefore, a group of people will remember and forget different information at any given time. This validates the ongoing need for real time recording of the inputs, actions, and decisions of your group.
Cognitive Dissonance. People dislike inconsistency and will attempt to eliminate it. When mental conflict occurs because beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information, people will tend to suppress, rationalize, avoid, or oversimplify it away. Know that this phenomenon exists, educate your peers about it, and if you must avoid the complex issues, at least acknowledge you’re doing it and perhaps plan another time to deal with it.
Disassociation from Task. Because group thinking is so difficult, individuals actually tend to disassociate from the task. Yet you may think it’s just you who has drifted and that everyone else is on top of everything being discusses. Not likely! But wanting to refrain from appearing stupid and wanting to be accepted, you go ahead and agree with whatever is on the table. Everyone is missing something…so risk being the fool and speak up!
Lowest Common Denominator and Highest Risk. The most common response of the group mind appears to be this: to reach a conclusion on the stated task, in the safest possible way so as to avoid division, and as quickly as possible, the group finds a consensus based on the lowest common denominator. The result is a compromise that may not solve the problem but does salve feelings and egos.
Lowest Common Level of Stupidity. Drs. David Charney and William Anixter specialize in treatment of anxiety and note that the most common malady, ahead of substance abuse and depression, is the individual’s fear of groups, affecting some 40% of the public to some degree. Convinced that it really is a matter of body chemistry, Victor Palmieri offers an only partially facetious cure. “There is a change in body chemistry, a drop in acuity to the lowest common level of stupidity, so when you see confusion in a meeting the important thing is to get out of the room as quickly as you can before your body chemistry changes!”
Resolving Collective Incompetence
As we have shown, group dynamics are more complex and difficult than individual dynamics. Hence, in any meeting you attend, the participants think less clearly as a group than the sum of the intelligence would suggest and less clearly than any single member may recognize at any particular moment. Group members tend to disassociate from the real task and move toward levels of abstraction. So it behooves us all, group leader and attendees alike to know the sources of collective incompetence and do our best to limit them.
Sources of Collective Incompetence
Miscommunication. Individuals come to a meeting with different abilities, experience, intelligence, language, styles, and body language. Know that miscommunication is inevitable and there’s continual need for clarification. Remedy. Therefore, avoid arguing your own views. Instead present your position and more importantly, your interests, as clearly as you can and listen carefully to others’ reactions, considering them carefully before you press your point.
Outside pressures. A meeting is often the focal point for decisions made elsewhere. Pressures brought to bear on participants from the outside can affect meetings far more than actions within.
Remedy. Don’t assume aspirations of meeting participants are clear. Reverse that presumption. Ask yourself what pressures weigh on your prospective partners.
Different Agenda. Every individual comes into the meeting with his or her own personal agenda to accomplish. And in many forms of meetings, these are very appropriate.
Remedy. But don’t assume that personal agendas align with the stated meeting agenda. Ask yourself what’s behind a criticism or a suggestion.
Insecurities and basic human needs. We tend to go mad in herds, but tend to recover one by one. To suggest change or to question, one must first speak as an individual and expose oneself.
Remedy. Don’t presume understanding and accord merely because no one speaks. There is nearly always a difference of opinion around the table. The most powerful interests in any meeting are the basic human needs of the participants…economic well-being, sense of belonging, need for recognition, and control of one’s life.
Personal Feelings. Personal feelings about fellow participants or about the meeting itself will always distort comments in the meeting and undermine collective thinking.
Remedy. Do your best to separate ideas and opinions from the people presenting them, and aggressively prevent or protect all participants from personal attack.
Competition. A meeting provides a forum for assessing and expressing status within the group, and that will affect the behavior of group members.
Remedy. Accept that this is going on to some extent in any meeting.
Distractions. Every meeting will have distractions from the late arrivals and early departures, to uncomfortable surroundings, to telephone interruptions, poor technical facilities, etc. Even when there are few outside distractions, all participants tend to wander from time to time resulting in a short circuit of the group mind.
Remedy. Presume you are losing some members all of the time and do what you can to limit distractions and keep everyone involved.
Thought displacement and buzz words. This is a particular form of distraction that can strike at any time. A “buzz” word can throw off a line of thought or a glib participant can send out the wrong data or information without anyone noticing.
Remedy. Thought displacement goes with the territory, presume it’s happening throughout the meeting and ask for clarification whenever you notice it.
The Laws of Triviality and Avoidance. “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved,” claims Professor Parkinson. Further, the time spent will be in inverse proportion to the complexity or difficulty of the issue: law of avoidance. Complex matters, irrespective of money, tend to be ignored, and simple matters tend to be belabored. People are simply more comfortable discussing what they know rather than what they don’t know. And most people want to demonstrate what they know rather than what they don’t. This means groups avoid the tough questions and concentrate on the easy ones.
Remedy. Expect this tendency in all your meetings and point in out whenever you see it. Offer options to meeting separately to address the tough issues if possible and appropriate.
Personality and Roles. Some personalities simply don’t mix. And irrespective of personalities, individuals naturally take on certain roles depending upon other participants: the facilitator, the disrupter, the complainer, and so on.
Remedy. Just be aware of this…that nearly everyone adopts a role of some kind during a meeting and nearly everyone harbors feelings about the other participants.
Incompetent Members and the Lowest Common Denominator. An incompetent or destructive participant tends can derail a meeting, bringing the whole group to his level. He can force others to respond to peripheral issues and encourage disassociation from the task. Fear of hurting his feelings, disrupting the group further, or reverence for democracy may allow him to take the meeting over. The group tends to defer, dropping to the Lowest Common Denominator.
Remedy. This tendency is counteracted by the facilitator’s imperative…the unflinching control of process.
In Summary. Good intentions are no match for collective incompetence whose sources reside in all meetings. Meeting participants need to know that it takes far more work to accomplish their goals than they think. Remember all of these hurdles when planning and developing your strategy for your next meeting. By understanding these forces and how they’re likely to manifest during the meeting you can devise strategies that will make them work for you, not against you.
What sources of collective incompetence have you noticed most and what have you done about it? Would could you do differently in the future? Please share your experiences, questions, or feedback with us below.