What Stops Groups from Working Together Effectively – Overcoming Bias

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This is a follow up to an earlier post on The Role of Diversity in Knowledge Management. The focus of that post was directed more towards knowledge management but it was also a post about how groups collaboratively make decisions or find innovative solutions.  This is a continuation of that post.

Inhibiting Factors

An effective route to any kind of organizational initiative can be found in the application of a Force Field Analysis (FFA); a tool for systematically analyzing factors found in complex problems. The method used in FFA includes identifying the “restraining forces” or inhibiting factors preventing an initiative from moving forward. The theory is that by identifying and then systematically removing those factors or barriers to success the initiative can proceed successfully. Below are the inhibiting factors that relate to work groups or teams. By looking at each and systematically identifying and looking for ways to removing the barrier we might be able to increase the effectiveness of group decision making and solution finding.


The primary limiting factor is bias. There are many types of bias and all relate to how an individual views or perceives the world. The following list, presented as problems and solutions, includes types of bias and how to remove or prevent them from impacting the effectiveness of CI.

Problem: In-group bias – Group members favour and support the ideas presented by their own group members.

Solution: Shield group members from knowing the identity of others in the group. This is especially important at the thought generation stage where in-group bias can influence the ideas generated. In addition organizations can use technologies that allow for the inclusion of those not in the in-group.

Problem: Out-group homogeneity – We tend to view people not in our in-group as being all alike. We stereotype and think that “They are all like that”. This tendency we all have towards seeing people not like us as holding similar views can cause problems in diverse groups. Group members can unconsciously negatively or positively stereotype other group members which can influence their own ideas and alignment with others ideas. Both in-group and out-group bias relate to representativeness bias which is a heuristic (mental shortcut) we often use to place people and things into groups. The downside of these kinds of mental leaps is that grouping can prevent us from seeing unique qualities in people and the potential of their ideas.

Solution: Online groups can be diverse without triggering our out-group homogeneity by keeping the identity of group members anonymous.

Problem: Groupthink – We have a tendency toward doing what others do. This is often called the bandwagon or herd effect. This is the best case against traditional brainstorming and collective decision making in a face to face environment.

Solution: Use technology to mask the herd by eliciting thoughts and ideas without exposing participants to others thoughts or ideas.

Problem: Social Loafing – The larger the number of individuals whose work is combined on a group task, the smaller is each individuals contribution. In short we contribute less when we are working together as a group. This is true in a tug of war and studies suggest it is also true in some kinds of team work.

Solution: People are more motivated and tend to contribute more when they believe that their work is identifiable and separable from the work of others. This may seem like a bit of a conundrum. Shielded surveys works because it can make participants anonymous yet that very thing may reduce individual contribution.  There are several ways to address this. One way is to keep group input anonymous for the “brainstorm” section only. After that responses can be attributed thereby motivating people to contribute their unique and uninfluenced ideas knowing that their contributions will eventually be seen by the entire group. This option works best with groups comprised of individuals who are confident and where trust has been established. Another option is to use a facilitator role as the group eyes. Even though the entire group may not know how much each individual contributed, the facilitator will, and that can help the activity be seen as identifiable and separate.

Problem: Social Facilitation – This theory suggests that we do better at some things when we are, or believe that we are, being watched. Conversely, on tasks that are new or that we are challenged by performance gets worse when watched. Both of these situations can negatively impact participation in face to face sessions. People will tend to over participate in generating common knowledge and under participate in generating new knowledge or presenting novel ideas.

Solution: Help participants find the balance between being “watched” by a supportive facilitator and being able to struggle invisibly. This combination can support out-of-the-box and professionally riskier ideas and potential solutions.

Problem: Group Polarization – When brought together to discuss a problem or possible decisions some groups can end up taking more extreme positions than they had begun with. People often dig in on a stance and any discussion just causes them to dig in more or become more supportive of one idea over another. Believing in one view over another in not in itself a problem; the problem occurs when it causes people to become so fixed that they become blind to other perspectives. Part of the reason for this is that when people have to verbally defend a position the act of defending causes them to believe even more strongly in that position. In effect they are convincing themselves as they try to convince others. Another related problem with this is that some people are perceived as more knowledgeable or more powerful or they may be more charismatic and have expert communication skills. None of these attributes ensure that the idea they are presenting is the best one. Indeed the best solution or idea may be held by someone who does not have the capacity in a face to face group to push their agenda forward. The net result of group polarization can be a decision that is riskier than hoped for or needed.

Solution: Take steps to manage discussion by using a neutral facilitator and with groups where there is a history or concern that polarization will occur make the process anonymous and/or allow discussion to take place asynchronously greatly lessening the likelihood of polarization. In addition facilitators can level the field by reframing individuals thoughts and ideas into one voice (theme the individual responses into groups of responses) so that it is the thought, the idea, that is judged and not the strength of the person advocating for it.

Problem: Risky Shift – Overall groups tend towards making riskier decisions. This is sometimes seen in mob behaviour where individuals often act of character doing things they would never consider doing as individuals. Some of the theories supporting this include the notion that individuals who tend toward risk taking are more persuasive and that there is cultural value in risk taking.

Solution: Minimize the influence risk takers have on a group by anonymous and/or asynchronous interactions. This may help Individuals from getting caught up in the moment and making decisions or choices too quickly. In short, give people time to think and reflect.

Problem: Common Knowledge Effect – This is more colloquially referred to as common sense. Common sense suggests that world is flat. Researchers have found that teams tend to focus on shared, “in common” information, when making decisions.  If most of the team members “know” something, that knowledge is seen as more valid than information or knowledge held by fewer group or team members. The result is that unique information is not shared and when it is it is often ignored. Social science research suggests that the reason for this is that sociality trumps effectiveness. As innately social creatures we actively and unconsciously seek similarities when we meet others. When we are first introduced to someone we usually try to find something that ties us together in a social bond. Once we find a common interest or viewpoint we tend to hold on to that as a way of cementing the relationship. This occurs more often when there is increased value in the maintaining the relationship.

Solution: The influences that cause group members to default to social beings invested in relationship building at the expense of critical decision making and solution finding can be minimized by using technology and facilitated processes so that uncommon knowledge can be shared on equal footing with common knowledge and the negative influences of social bonding can be separated from the process.

Of course I’m a fan of online technology like Thoughtexchange to accomplish reduce the bias that accompanies face-to-face engagement. The platform was developed with these biases in mind so it’s no accident that Tx effectively removes, or at least reduces, these kinds of barriers.

I’m also a huge fan of of well facilitated processes and spending the time to create a healthy team but realize that that is not always possible, especially if we’re trying to include more diversity but inviting in team members for specific issues and/or shorter time frames.

What are some other ideas about reducing bias in group or team environments? What have you found that works?


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