Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming group overconfidence is hard, but in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers one partial remedy: a premortem. As opposed to a postmortem, and analysis of why a project failed, a premortem looks at why a program might fail before it has started.

 

Group communication is difficult. When the leader of a group is enthusiastic about an idea, it is hard to disagree with them. If you are a junior member of a team, it can be uncomfortable, and potentially even disadvantageous for you and your career to doubt the ideas that a senior leader is excited about. If you have concerns, it is not likely that you will bring them up, especially in a group meeting with other seemingly enthusiastic team members surrounding you.

 

Beyond the silencing of a member who has concerns but doesn’t want to speak up is another problem that contributes to overconfidence among teams: groupthink. Particularly among groups that lack diversity, groupthink can crush the planning stage of a project. When everyone has similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar styles of thinking, it is unlikely that anyone within the group will have a viewpoint or opinion that is significantly different than the prevailing wisdom of the rest. What seems like a good idea or the correct decision to one person probably feels like the correct idea or decision to everyone else – there is literally no one in the room who has any doubts or alternative perspectives.

 

Premortems help get beyond groupthink and the fear of speaking up against a powerful and enthusiastic leader. The idea is to brainstorm all the possible ways that a project might fail. It includes an element of creativity by asking everyone to imagine the project is finally finished, either successfully but well over budget, way late, after a very turbulent series of events, or the project was a complete failure and never reached its intended end point. People have to describe the issues that came up and why the project did not reach the rosy outcome everyone initially pictured. Imaging that these failures had taken place in real life gets people to step beyond groupthink and encourages highlighting roadblocks that particularly enthusiastic members overlook.

 

Because premortems are hypothetical, it gives people a chance to speak up about failure points and weaknesses in plans and ideas without appearing to criticize the person the idea came from. It creates a safe space for imagining barriers and obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve success. It reduces groupthink by encouraging a creative flow of ideas of failure points. As Kahneman writes, “The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.”

 

Overcoming group overconfidence is possible, but it needs the right systems and structures to happen. Groupthink and fear are likely to prevent people from bringing up real doubts and threats, but a premortem allows those concerns to be aired and seriously considered. It helps get people to look beyond the picture of success they intuitively connect with, and it helps prevent enthusiastic supporters from getting carried away with their overconfidence.
Teamwork Contributions

Thinking About Who Deserves Credit for Good Teamwork

Yesterday I wrote about the Availability Heuristic, the term that Daniel Kahneman uses in his book Thinking Fast and Slow to describe the ways in which our brains misjudge frequency, amount, and probability based on how easily an example of something comes to mind. In his book, Kahneman describes individuals being more likely to overestimate things like celebrity divorce rates if there was recently a high profile and contentious celebrity divorce in the news. The easier it is for us to make an association or to think of an example of a behavior or statistical outcome, the more likely we will overweight that thing in our mental models and expectations for the world.

 

Overestimating celebrity divorce rates isn’t a very big deal, but the availability heuristic can have a serious impact in our lives if we work as part of a team or if we are married and have a family. The availability heuristic can influence how we think about who deserves credit for good team work.

 

Whenever you are collaborating on a project, whether it is a college assignment, a proposal or set of training slides at work, or keeping the house clean on a regular basis, you are likely to overweight your own contributions relative to others. You might be aware of someone who puts in a herculean effort and does well more than their own share, but if everyone is chugging along completing a roughly equivalent workload, you will see yourself as doing more than others. The reason is simple, you experience your own work firsthand. You only see everyone else’s handiwork once they have finished it and everyone has come back together. You suffer from availability bias because it is easier for you to recall the time and effort you put into the group collaboration than it is for you to recognize and understand how much work and effort others pitched in. Kahneman describes the result in his book, “you will occasionally do more than your share, but it is useful to know that you are likely to have that feeling even when each member of the team feels the same way.” 

 

Even if everyone did an equal amount of work, everyone is likely to feel as though they contributed more than the others. As Kahneman writes, there is more than 100% of credit to go around when you consider how much each person thinks they contributed. In marriages, this is important to recognize and understand. Spouses often complain that one person is doing more than the other to keep the house running smoothly, but if they complain to their partner about the unfair division of household labor, they are likely to end up in an unproductive argument with each person upset that their partner doesn’t recognize how much they contribute and how hard they work. Both will end up feeling undervalued and attacked, which is certainly not where any couple wants to be.

 

Managers must be aware of this and must find ways to encourage and celebrate the achievements of their team members while recognizing that each team member may feel that they are pulling more than their own weight. Letting everyone feel that they are doing more than their fair share is a good way to create unhelpful internal team competition and to create factions within the workplace. No professional work team wants to end up like a college or high school project group, where one person pulls and all-nighter, overwriting everyone else’s work and where one person seemingly disappears and emails everyone last minute to ask them not to rat them out to the teacher.

 

Individually, we should acknowledge that other people are not going to see and understand how much effort we feel that we put into the projects we work on. Ultimately, at an individual level we have to be happy with team success over our individual success. We don’t need to receive a gold star for every little thing that we do, and if we value helping others succeed as much as we value our own success, we will be able to overcome the availability heuristic in this instance, and become a more productive team member, whether it is in volunteer projects, in the workplace, or at home with our families.
Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions - The Importance of Asking Questions - Joe Abittan

Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions

A bit of advice offered by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People reads, “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the person whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”

 

Carnegie suggest that instead of directly ordering people to do something, we should instead ask them questions about how we (as a team) can go about achieving the thing we want. This advice seems like it needs to be tied to specific situations in order for it to be practical. There are certainly times where requests need to be direct and even forceful to make sure appropriate jobs and tasks are completed accurately and timely.

 

However, if we are working on a creative project with multiple routes to completion, asking process questions might be a good approach. We could micromanage the project and interject at every point to make sure decisions were made in the way we wanted, or we could stand back and ask people what they thought would be the best approach and ask others what the pros and cons of each approach to reaching our goal might be. This seems to be the context that Carnegie envisioned for his advice.

 

With children, educators often encourage asking questions rather than telling answers. Instead of telling kids why the sky is blue, the advice is to ask children why they think the sky is blue, what could lead to it being blue, whether the sky is always blue or if its hue changes. These questions stimulate the mind and expand the conversation. Kids on their own probably won’t come up with an explanation of why the sky is blue and we will have to explain Rayleigh scattering to them, but we can at least engage them more and help them work on critical thinking skills in ways that simply answering questions directly would not allow for.

 

When working in teams where we can give authority to others, we can encourage this same type of critical thinking and build such skills by asking questions rather than by micromanaging and giving directives. We can ask what others understand to be our main goals and ask others how they think their role within the project can support those larger. This gives others a chance to take ownership of their duties in ways that simply giving orders does not. Hopefully with them engaged and supportive of the final decisions they will grow and produce better outcomes on this and future projects.

Beyond Sorting Things Out

One of the arguments that Michael Bungay Stanier makes in his book The Coaching Habit is that we view coaching as something directive, controlling, and done by a mastermind who directs the people they coach as if they were chess pieces. Bungay Stanier highlights the ways that this vision of coaching falls short and fails to actually achieve the goals of coaching. Our visions of great coaches often center around strong men (men because they are often in the professional sports world) who bark orders, make smart decisions, display power, and are shrouded in mystery. Real successful coaching Bungay Stanier argues, is actually less about the coach, is less directive and more exploratory, and more focused on growth than on problem solving.

 

One of his chapters starts with large bold text reading, “Call them forward to learn, improve, and grow, rather than to just get something sorted out.” A bad view of a successful coach places them at the center of the coaching relationship. The coach finds the weaknesses, identifies the problems and shortcomings, and then directs the people they work with to make specific changes and to do specific things to overcome their obstacles. The coach’s brilliance leads the way and their orders sort out the problems for everyone so that the team can be great.

 

Unfortunately, this view of coaching is not actually helpful for individual growth nor is it representative of the leadership of great teams. When a coach takes this approach, what they find is that they are increasingly called upon and relied on to solve every problem and curve ball thrown at the team. The coach becomes the go to voice for every decision and it is up to them to determine the right path forward in every situation. Success and failure rest on the coach, and while this may give the coach great power and prestige (if things go well) it limits the potential and possibilities of the team. Any human can only make so many decisions and take on so many projects. Being involved in every single decision may give you great power, but it is also constraining, stressful, and limiting.

 

Truly successful teams are able to distribute leadership, authority, and decision-making. A good coach allows decisions to be made independently of themselves so that they can take on new opportunities and think long-term. To do this, coaches can’t just solve every problem that comes up, they need to help those they work with to learn, improve, and develop real skills that will help them tackle the myriad of challenges that can and cannot be predicted. When coaches empower rather than direct, the team can flourish as more people are able to apply skill sets that make a difference. Rather than being limited by the time, attention span, and strengths of the coach, these teams can be dynamic, flexible, creative, and fast. The role of the coach becomes one of empowerment by identifying areas to develop skills for others rather than to provide answers from above.