How to Prevent Group Think from Highjacking Meetings at Work

It’s hilarious that it’s taken me 32 years to learn just how blissfully unaware I was of my backend.

No, not my ass, but the stuff that goes on in my subconscious.

Between 9th grade (when I started enjoying learning) and completing college, I was living under the impression that soaking up knowledge, binge-watching powerful documentaries and reading important books brought me closer to my higher self.

Little did I know that was only occasionally true

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that our conscious mind is in charge of analytical thinking. 

But it’s also sometimes busy, mostly starving, and often lazy.

And despite believing otherwise, we’re mostly running on autopilot, following the rules made by our subconscious.

After that realisation, you can’t continue living the same way, can you?

Not when you’re determined to get better at #adulting. And I believe that a big part of being an adult has better judgement.

That’s especially important when you’re responsible for making decisions that can impact the careers of hundreds of people

Our judgement is seriously fickle.

And remarkably so when based on memories or when we’re under pressure.

It’s safe to say that most management positions check both boxes.

Here are a couple of heuristics that are especially harmful to decision making at work.

Finding causality without evidence

Kahneman explains that our subconscious keeps track of what’s ‘normal’ by linking events, actions and outcomes that mostly happen simultaneously. 

I’m allergic to tomatoes, and after several decades of bloating and nausea, I associate tomatoes with digestive issues.

Associative memory (tomatoes = nausea) bypass critical thinking, leading me to find causality where it doesn’t exist. 

It means that I’m more likely to believe that tomato soup is a horrible food without ever having tried it.

How many animals did Moses take into his ark?

Two of each kind, right?

According to Kahneman, most people skip to the answer without noticing the error in the question itself. 

Moses didn’t build the ark. Noah did.

But when you know the story and remember that Moses and Noah are biblical characters, your subconscious skips the critical thinking bit.

This happens all the time, and we’re mostly oblivious to it.

We analyse to confirm what we already believe, not to disprove it

We like it when we’re right. And most of the time, we’re only looking for information that proves we’re right.

It’s called Positive Test Strategy, and it’s how our conscious mind works.

When uncertain, we like to bet on an answer that’s most likely to be true.

Our intuition (or gut feeling) is often correct.

And that’s where things get tricky because even the best of us have only limited experiences in life.

So, when making sense of anything new, we work backwards, starting with comparing what we don’t know with what we do know.

Despite our best efforts, our experiences are limited.

And relying on associative memory alone leads us to confirmation bias and the halo effect.

We don’t need much information before jumping to conclusions.

I also learnt of it from Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Here’s Alan and Ben, what do you think of them?

Alan: Intelligent – Industrious – Impulsive – Critical – Stubborn – Envious

Ben: Envious – Stubborn – Critical – Impulsive – Industrious – Intelligent

In most experiments, people believed that Alan’s stubbornness is justified because he’s an intelligent person. But Ben’s intelligence makes him dangerous because he’s envious and stubborn.

Knowing nothing more than simply reading an identical list of adjectives, first in one order and then in another, is enough to convince us that Ben is a Bond villain.

Associative memory creates a story that’s safe and familiar. But it doesn’t care much for the accuracy of data available to us.

And worse, an essential feature of associative memory is that it can only use what we remember. Anything else may as well not exist.

Our shared biases multiply our lapse in judgement

We are our biases. There’s no running away from it.

And our biases multiply when we’re working together.

That’s why they don’t interview witnesses to a crime at the same time in the same place.

As Kahneman explains, “Allowing the observers to influence each other effectively reduces the size of the sample, and with it, the precision of the group estimate.”

We feel confident when we believe in the consistency of the stories we tell ourselves.

And our biases add the illusion of completeness by plastering over the gaps.

But that’s not how we solve problems at work

At work, we solve problems in lengthy meetings with half distracted people working with incomplete data.

We can’t leave our biases at the door, but we can keep them in check.

One way to do that is by asking people to write down pre-meeting memos.

It can be a summary of their point of view on an important issue before its openly discussed.

Asking your colleagues to share their thoughts in a meeting before a decision needs to be made doesn’t remove their personal biases, but it prevents Group Think from highjacking your meeting.

How to support subject-matter experts in solving problems without making a fool of yourself

My two hours of googling will never beat your years of professional experience.

But that didn’t stop me from trying.

I knew next to nothing about the business, but I knew that agency life was my calling. 

And I was determined to turn my foot-in-the-door into a rewarding career.

To be taken seriously, I needed to be knowledgeable about my clients’ business and be an expert on selling.

People appreciate you more if you take an interest in their problems.

That drive helped me transition from an expert to a leadership position quickly.

But riding on the tails of late nights and weekends spent working was my imposter syndrome.

The harder you grind, the more you get stuck. 

If anything, my responsibilities have only multiplied over the years.

Strategy is problem-solving, and building operations take collaboration.

And the favourite part of my job is working with my clients and other experts.

I’m grateful that I get to do that every day.

But as a leader, I’m responsible for supporting more than myself or my clients.

I’m responsible for supporting both my team as well as my colleagues across the organisation.

And there’s absolutely no way for me to absorb and synthesise every detail on every client.

Believe me, I tried.

And only managed to drive me closer to burnout. Twice.

Thankfully, there’s a better way.

And it’s coaching.

It has less to do with talking and selling your ideas and everything to do with listening and supporting others.

I use two ways of coaching at work.

Teaching others how to solve a problem.

The most common form of coaching is teaching others what you already know.

I learnt online marketing as an entrepreneur building my own business. 

In my first two jobs, first at a media and then at a digital agency, I could teach most basic skills and work with senior experts on others.

I don’t get to use this method much and rely on the second way of coaching in my current job.

Working with others so they can find a solution on their own.

I currently lead a team of senior strategists, each an expert in their own field. 

I can support my team with marketing strategy and operations. But beyond that, I don’t know nearly enough about brand communication, service design, or managing influencer relations to teach people more experienced than me.

Beyond my team, there are client leads, creatives, art directors, and clients.

Productive collaboration with all of them is an essential part of my job.

Coaching experts from different fields.

Imagine jumping into coaching others, who clearly know more about their field than you, with imposter syndrome.

You can’t effectively help others when you’re constantly worried you’re gonna get caught as a fraud.

This is where I found Sir John Whitman’s GROW coaching model extremely helpful.

GROW stands for:

  • Goal
  • Reality
  • Options
  • Will

It’s one of the simplest aids for coaching and mentoring others because the model assumes that the coach isn’t an expert in the field. 

Instead, you must act as a facilitator, helping the expert discover the best course of action without offering advice or solutions.

G for GOAL

Start the session by establishing the outcome the expert is after. Ask questions such as:

  • What is your expected result of this session?
  • What is the goal related to the problem you’re solving?

This will help you establish a purpose and boundaries for the session.

R for REALITY

Ask explorative questions – whatwhowherewhen, how – to help the expert gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

Remember, creating space for people to think and helping them get unstuck is far more valuable than giving them a half-baked solution.

Your only job is to actively listen and ask questions that encourage further exploration, such as:

  • What are the benefits of the solution?
  • What will it take to get the desired results?
  • Who are you helping?
  • What have you done so far?
  • Where did you get stuck?

O for OPTIONS

Too much choice is paralysing. It’s your job to help narrow down the options, with questions like:

  • What different options do we have?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • How much budget or resources will you need?
  • Do you have enough time to deliver the solution?
  • What would you do if you had no restraints?

W for WILL 

This one’s my favourite because, As the coach, you’re responsible for helping the expert succeed. 

And the only way for them to succeed is by solving the problem; you must help them decide whether they can commit to solving it and how:

  • What are you going to do next?
  • What kind of help do you need and from whom?
  • How much time can you commit to this?
  • By when are you going to get it done?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to getting this done?

Managing yourself when coaching.

These are just a few examples.

And you should always phrase your questions to fit your style and the context of your conversation. 

It’s essential to embrace silence. Do not try to fill it.

Only ask one question at a time. You can clarify or rephrase it, but give the other person a chance to answer before asking the next question.

I recommend leaving your phones and laptops behind unless they’re essential for the conversation.

Ask the expert to send you pre-reading material or a short memo beforehand. This is especially handy when solving problems related to a project.

You can listen and take notes. 

But if doing two things at once is too much, start by only listening.