Listening to the unheard voice

Posted 28 September 2011 by

I recently worked with a team in which the majority of members shared similar MBTI preferences for Extraversion, Thinking and Judging. They were set a task to accomplish within a very short period of time. The team immediately set to work and focused in on the end goal, with a clear awareness of the time constraints. While certain group members immediately adopted leadership roles within the team, others were happy to step back and go along with the approach decided by the group leaders. The whole team, with the exception of one member, were in agreement about the strategy and course of action that needed to be taken to approach the task.

While the rest of the team were busy working towards completion of this task, one team member was attempting to voice his disagreement with this strategy and point out a potential flaw that the team had overlooked. Unfortunately, due in part to the time pressure, and in part to the fact that subconsciously this team member was perceived as ‘different’ from the rest of the group (he had preferences for Introversion, Feeling and Perceiving), his views were not listened to by the rest of the group. As the team approached the end of the task, they realised independently that they had made a crucial mistake in terms of how they had approached the task, resulting in an incorrect end result. Had they listened to the team member who had voiced his concerns, they would have realised their error in time to adjust their strategy and achieve the right outcome. So why didn’t they?

Firstly, the group displayed a strong desire for unanimity and consensus. This meant that they failed to consider alternative strategies or the potential consequences of their decision. This poor decision-making ultimately led to the wrong approach being chosen, leading to a flawed end result. This phenomenon, known by psychologists as ‘groupthink’, often happens in very cohesive groups, where there is a high degree of similarity between group members. A perceived outsider to the group, or someone who has very different views to the majority, may struggle to get their opinions heard.

Secondly, the high levels of cohesiveness within the group also led them to make more extreme decisions than they may have done independently, or in a less cohesive group. This high degree of consensus within a group can lead to group members becoming so convinced that a decision is the right one, because of the similarity in their views, that they become more radical in their thinking – a phenomenon known as ‘group polarisation’. Groups with a high degree of similarity amongst members can often become blinkered, considering issues from a very limited perspective and discounting ideas that run counter to the group’s natural and preferred decision-making style.

Thirdly, ‘social loafing’, where people sit back and let others do the work, can have a major impact on team productivity. This was again observed in the group dynamics discussed above. While certain group members immediately adopted leadership roles within the team, others were happy to step back and go along with the approach decided by the group leaders. While these group members may have largely agreed with the approach decided on, they could have done more to question or challenge the proposed approach. Social loafing prevents the development of useful group dynamics, with more assertive team members taking charge and reducing the need for others to do anything, which then reinforces the pattern. Often social loafing occurs in group members who are shy, lacking in confidence, or who feel that their contribution won’t be valued. It can also occur when group members feel they have little investment in the success of the group.

Strategies for overcoming these pitfalls are available, but require the team leader to be motivated and proactive in reshaping group dynamics.

Organisations can overcome these pitfalls by designing work tasks that:

The MBTI Team Report can help teams to uncover their particular strengths, as well as potential blind spots within the team. It looks at each team member’s MBTI preferences and combines these to give a modal ‘team type’, which also looks at the similarity or diversity in team preferences.

If the team is only considering issues from a particular perspective or thought process, the resulting blind spots can quickly lead to ineffective decision-making, eg groupthink or polarisation. More generally, this is likely to impede the team’s overall effectiveness, especially in terms of their communication with the rest of the organisation, their strategies for dealing with conflict and their approaches to problem-solving.

By helping teams to uncover their blindspots and understand the importance of considering these, there is a great deal that organisations can do to create a broader and more balanced perspective for future decision-making. Development events based around the MBTI Team Report can also help a group to recognise and appreciate differences within the team, particularly amongst diverse teams, leading to more inclusive group working.

Finally, if teams are able to identify where they have blindspots in their thinking, they can take steps to ensure these are overcome through individual development of existing team members. They can also seek to incorporate others with different viewpoints into the project team to help bridge the gaps in their thinking, and avoid the pitfalls of dysfunctional group behaviour.

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