GRC Professional: Why too much cohesion is bad for you

In this article written for GRC Professional, Michelle explains that too much cohesion can be unhealthy. When team members are unwilling to challenge or disagree with each other, it’s a warning sign for leaders that something is wrong.

There are many instances in which sections of corporate Australia haven’t lived up to community expectations. The most recent examples of this became all-too-evident during the Royal Commission into Banking, and the Aged Care Royal Commission. The inevitable outcome of such reviews is heightened scrutiny and a focus on corporate culture. It’s commonly accepted that fixing organisational problems requires culture change to support and sustain it. The question that naturally follows is: What type of culture does the organisation need?

Defining a healthy culture

Leaders often think the sign of a healthy culture is that agreements are reached easily and there is collegiality, little dissent or difference of opinions. It’s the fallacy of ‘consensus rules’.

In fact, too much consensus can be unhealthy. When team members are unwilling to challenge or disagree with each other, it’s a warning sign for leaders that something is wrong. Teams need to be able to discuss and disagree robustly as part of a healthy decision-making process. Otherwise, they are prone to bias, error and group-think.

ANU Professor, Andrew Hopkins, has written extensively on risk failures and the dangers of consensus decision-making. As an expert in this field, he has found that groups are often more inclined to make riskier decisions, more so than individuals, because of the process of de-individualisation.

How this plays out is that, because there are many people responsible for the decision, individuals feel as though they are not personally responsible. They are, therefore, more likely to take risks, and can be more-easily persuaded by the group to go against their own values.

Hopkins says: “Everyone is responsible for the decision, which means, in turn, that no one person feels personally responsible. The end result is non-responsible decision-making”.

This is harder to avoid in an environment where debate is curtailed or silenced, or where leaders fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and making decisions that are easy and popular, rather than difficult.

Default thinking is dangerous

For leaders facing unchartered territory, relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger.

Complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’, nor are they solved by relying on patterns of learned behaviour. This is because we don’t make decisions on facts alone.

“Leaders often think the sign of a healthy culture is that agreements are reached easily and there is collegiality, little dissent or difference of opinions. It’s the fallacy of ‘consensus rules’.”

Our brain filters information, discarding information that doesn’t fit with its world view. It also takes ‘mental short cuts’ as it is trying to conserve energy and arrive at a decision about what to do in the fastest possible way. This means leaders need people around them who can challenge how they view the world and how they process information. This starts with ensuring there is diversity of thought around the decision-making table.

Search for difference

It’s natural to want to work with people you like and find easy to work with, and consequently, when leaders are building a team or forming working groups, they often seek out such people.

This is either done consciously or subconsciously. In the case of recruitment, for example, search criteria often specifically reference the desire to find a candidate where there is cultural fit.

Cultural fit can mean different things to different people. Typically, if you ask people how they define cultural fit, they will give comments such as, someone who:

  • Lives the organisation’s values
  • Can work well in the team
  • Will fit in with the rest of the group
  • Understands the organisation’s objectives and buys into its vision.

However, when you strip away the layers and get to the base-level drivers, what the person is looking for is someone with whom they feel comfortable—that is, someone with whom they connect because they can see aspects of themselves in that person.

Very early in my career, I was told that the key success criteria for a job interview was to ensure I was likeable—the premise being the hiring manager had already positively assessed my CV for the required technical skills because they invited me to be interviewed. Now, all they wanted to know is if they wanted to work with me.

This likeability isn’t just about being friendly or being a nice person. It’s about whether the hiring manager finds similarities with the person they are interviewing. Research shows we like people who are similar in terms of interests, backgrounds and experiences, and this has consequential impacts for hiring decisions.

Kellogg University found that getting hired for a job was not so much about the “soft or hard dimensions of the role”, but rather how similar the person being interviewed was to the person conducting the interview.

There’s a danger with this. When you hire people like yourself, you are filling the team or working group with people who have similar backgrounds, experiences and thought processes. This homogeneity has flow-on impacts on how decisions are made. The more alike people are, the more likely they are to think along the same lines and, therefore, there is less room for debate, discernment and disagreement.

In countless pieces of research, the evidence shows that diverse teams make better decisions. In one particular piece of research, once again from Kellogg University, they found that diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups—not because of an influx of new ideas, but because the diversity triggered more careful processing of the information that was being discussed.

It goes beyond hiring decisions and having diversity around the table. It’s also the culture of debate that’s created.

“Our brain filters information, discarding information that doesn’t fit with its world view. It also takes ‘mental short cuts’ as it is trying to conserve energy and arrive at a decision about what to do in the fastest possible way.”

Encourage spirited conversations

Leaders need to embrace the uncertainty that arises during times of change, and to constantly seek out new ideas and input from different people. This involves being naturally curious and approaching uncertainty as a challenge to solve, not as a barrier to avoid.

In such an environment, teams are encouraged to engage in spirited conversations, rather than silent, shallow or stunted conversations that don’t advance the decision-making process.

Spirited conversations create energy, spark new ideas, help people think more clearly about the position they hold, and open the room to different solutions. It involves the asking of lots of questions, different perspectives being tabled and heard, and all participants being willing to look at issues from multiple angles.

Over time, this creates cultural norms where ideas are shared and challenged in the spirit of achieving a better and more-robust decisions—all of which is a necessary pre-cursor for sustained and successful organisational change transformation.

Manage the bias

Doing this requires the leader to accept that they have bias (and in fact, we all have bias that infiltrates how we decide).
The challenge of course, is that it’s very hard to see your own bias. All of us think our decision-making process is rational and objective, when in fact it’s not.

Bias pervades decision-making. Consequently, it’s easy for leaders to be blind to the obvious and closed to other people’s opinions. It’s therefore critical that leaders are conscious about the decisions being made and remain highly attuned to the factors that influence how they are processing information.

“Spirited conversations create energy, spark new ideas, help people think more clearly about the position they hold, and open the room to different solutions.”

To do this, it helps to:

CHALLENGE YOUR MINDSET

Examine the mindset you are applying to your work and relationships. Letting assumptions drive your thought processes, and ultimately behaviour, can negatively impact your decision-making and interactions with colleagues and stakeholders. Instead, be curious and invite different opinions, as ‘out of the box’ thinking often comes from unexpected quarters.

DON’T SILENCE THE DISSENTERS

People are easily swayed by the opinion of others. Be alert to when a group or team is ignoring the person who is raising the dissenting idea. It may be this person who helps ensure the group doesn’t fall into the trap of group-think.

IGNORE HIERARCHY

Talk to people at all levels of the organisation. Hierarchy can interfere with the information you receive, as it can be filtered and sanitised before it hits your desk by people who are trying to paint a situation in the most favourable light. Talking with people across, and up and down the organisation ensures you know what is happening, and are therefore better able to make a good decision.

As you do this, it pays to remember the quote from Doug Floyd: “You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note”.


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