Venture Magazine: Why too much cohesion is bad for you - and the organisation - Michelle Gibbings

Don’t just hire people who are like you, says Michelle in a recent article she wrote for Venture Magazine. 

There are many instances in which sections of corporate Australia haven’t lived up to community expectations. The most recent examples 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 robustly discuss and disagree as part of a healthy decision-making process.  Otherwise they are prone to bias, error, and group-think.

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

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

He 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.

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 get to a decision about what to do in the fastest possible way.

This means leaders need people around them who can challenge their 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 who they feel comfortable with. That is, someone with whom they connect because they can see aspects of themselves in that person.

Likeability isn’t just about being friendly and 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 to 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.

Encourage spirited conversations

Leaders need to be encouraged to embrace the uncertainty that arises during times of change, and constantly seek out new ideas and input from different people.

This involves being naturally curious and approaching the 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 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; which is a necessary precursor 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 it’s very hard to see your own bias, and we 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 highly attuned to the factors that influence how they are processing information.

To do this it helps to:

Challenge your mindsetExamine 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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