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In general, group discussions are beneficial to providing the most adequate solutions to problems. It facilitates creative thinking, stemming from an idea from one person expanding to something even bigger from another person and so forth. Groups allow different perspectives and angles to be considered with each issue. And those who are involved or are represented by those involved in the discussions feel as if their voices are heard, as if their viewpoints are recognized.
These are all excellent points for having group discussions; in fact, these discussions should be more encouraged when possible. However, group discussions do have their own pitfalls that everyone should be aware of.
1. Groupthink: the tendency to support the predominant viewpoint
An ideal group discussion would be one where every person gets to voice his or her opinion in an honest, unbiased manner. The intentions are truthfully based on giving the best solution for the problem. Rarely does this perfectly happen, and in many cases, people tend to engage in groupthink. For various reasons (such as to avoid confrontation), people may agree with some issues on the surface even though in their minds, they may not necessarily agree with what the majority of people are saying. They may be afraid to go against the majority due to feeling uncomfortable or wanting to avoid dissonance.
2. Loyalty towards someone
People may be friends or loyal to someone and may agree with someone based on their relationship, even though they may not agree with the viewpoint.
3. To avoid consequences
There are many consequences when one truthfully voices out his or her opinion. In a company meeting, going against an insecure boss may lead to dismissal. When the majority has come to a decision yet there is something you feel like hasn’t been addressed, the majority may not like you for prolonging the discussion and for the possibility that their decision may be modified or overturned.
4. Picking your battles wisely
In a group discussion, there may be big issues, and there may also be small issues. You may choose to agree with whatever is chosen in the small issues, even though you may not completely agree, so that you don’t appear constantly fighting with every single issue. You want to make sure that when you do disagree, it’s for the issues that matter most.
5. Indifference towards an issue
The topic at hand may not be important to you at all, and you feel completely indifferent regardless of the decision that is finalized. In a case like this, the best thing to happen is for the dialogue to end quickly so that you can get on with your life. And for that to happen, you may agree to just whatever is being said so that things can move along quickly.
6. The involvement of egos
Because we are all humans, we all have egos. No matter what you say or do, your ego is at play. Highly efficient groups are able to put their egos aside and focus on the matter at hand. But many times, this is not the case. Two or more sides tend to result in a battle seeing who’s solution becomes the final agreement. In this scenario, time may be wasted as viewpoints may be repeated to cause emphasis with no new information inputted. An uglier result would be that personal issues become intertwined so that the focus is shifted into something irrelevant, and that the end result would just be damage to relationships everywhere.
7. Being emotional rather than logical
People can be influenced by their emotions rather than by logic. These emotions can be stemmed from anywhere, including body language, tone and choice of words, appearance, key points that match with your values etc.. However, sometimes we must note that something that is emotional may not be the best solution. Usually, these situations occur when leaders make an appeal to attain the unachievable ideal to win you over, only for you to realise later on that the decision made was never realistic.
8. A narrow selection of group members
By that, I mean the the group members chosen to participate in the group discussion are not diversified enough. It could be because it is overly reliant on one sex, or one industry, age group or country etc. The point of having a group discussion is so that all angles and perspectives of the interested parties can be taken into consideration so that the most optimal solution can be attained to satisfy all parties involved. The narrow selection of group members phenomenon may happen because the person who picked the group members wanted everyone to side with him/her, or a lack of diversified participants were available, or potential participants weren’t properly informed of the discussion.
9. Saliva more than tea
In Cantonese, there is a saying that when someone’s saliva is more than tea, it means that they are being too talkative. This could be detrimental to the group discussion as it reduces time to discuss other issues, restricts the time of other people’s opinions to be heard, and it may disrupt the flow of the conversation.
10. Too much listening, too little talking
Then there’s the opposite of the spectrum, where some people are too shy to speak in front of a group of people. They may even withdraw from the discussion and not realize what may be going on.
To minimize the impact of these pitfalls, I have addressed some ways to deal with the above problems (numbers are not correlated with above points):
1. Most group discussions tend to have a leader beforehand. It could be due to position or status, it could be the one who organized the meeting, or it could be someone who can think calmly and can time manage effectively. The leader must be able to get everyone focused on topic at hand and stick to a designated timetable of the meeting. The leader must be able to get everyone to voice out their opinions.
2. Have someone jot down notes so that people can reference to the meeting later on and think about the key points in their own time.
3. In fact, big issues may not be resolved in one single meeting. It is best to plan ahead a series of meetings, and use the first one or two meetings as a way to have everyone discuss and see how people feel and to gauge a sense of direction of where people would like the decision to be headed towards. Ample amount of time before the final decision is made must be given so that multiple meetings can be set up. People can also spend their own time thinking about the points addressed in the meeting and rethink about their positions. Some of them may be too emotional during the meeting that only when they spend some time outside of the group do they then realize that their viewpoint may be less compelling than someone else’s. Or maybe during their own time they are able to come up with something they didn’t come up before.
4. Try to get as diversified of a group as you can so that all interested parties’ perspectives can be voiced out.
5. The organizer of the meeting should allocate appropriate amount of time for each big and small issues involved, along with some time at the end in case participants want to add something back to a topic previously discussed. The organizer should also let participants know beforehand on when and how long the meeting will be, so that people feel more comfortable knowing what their schedules would be like and may be less prone to think it’s a “waste of time” when they have had time to prepare for the meeting and can block out any other activities that may conflict with the meeting time.
6. Encourage participants to speak out when they have a well thought out point, even if they don’t have any interest in the issue, because other people may be able to expand that idea into something else.
7. Assign someone as a devil’s advocate of the group beforehand to ensure that people do not easily conform to one popular idea.
8. Must tolerate a no consequences policy so people can be honest and upfront about their viewpoints.
9. Leader must encourage participants to use a language that is tactful and respectful to each other.
10. Allow all participants to anonymously write on a cue card any additional comments they would like to add to the issue being discussed before moving on to the next issue. That way, those who may be too shy to voice out in front of a group (although they should practice speaking up regardless) can have their viewpoints considered as well.
11. Once again, the leader is responsible for getting everyone involved in the meeting. If they are seriously not interested in the issue at hand and completely believe that they will not have any valid arguments, that person should not have participated in the group discussion in the first place. Having someone who is distracting or uninterested can bring down the energy of the group discussion.
12. The more people that you can get involved in the group discussion, the more people that will feel as if they have contributed. People like to follow through with their contributions, and if everyone was able to contribute to the final decision and agree on it, everyone will feel more belonged to the group and will want to help out with the final decision.
What other common group problems can you think of or have encountered?