How to make better group decisions

A story about how groupthink led to dessert disaster and how we can learn from it.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I was at an Italian restaurant with my husband. The place was a trendy spot with dozens of tables, side-by-side. Truly, we were all sitting on top of each other and eavesdropping was (almost) unavoidable.

Next to us, a couple enjoyed a celebratory dinner.

After the entrée, the husband asked if his wife would like the chocolate cake for dessert. She replied with a resounding “Yes”. The dessert came and the wife didn’t even take a bite. Confused, the husband asked why.

Well you see, she didn’t actually want the cake. It was his turn to pick and she wanted him to get what he wanted. Here comes the true tragedy….

The husband said that he also didn’t want the cake! He picked it thinking she would like it! They both agreed that the apple tart would have been better.

Something as simple as a dessert selection between a married couple ended with neither getting what they wanted.

Sadly, the couple fell victim to groupthink.

Groupthink occurs within the group decision making process. A strong desire for agreement or conformity in the group can result in an irrational outcome. Often people in the group are not willing to raise alternative preferences or solutions. The wife did not bring up an alternative dessert so the couple ordered the first option put on the table. The initial offer became their anchor and they never moved away from it.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

So how could the couple have made a better decision?

Typically a good way to reduce groupthink is to name someone as the devil’s advocate. In this role, it is their job to find counter-arguments and share the opposite opinions with the group. This acts as a disconfirming test.

Unfortunately, this does not work well when there are only two members in the group. So what else could they do?

Certainly, a formal evaluation of the options would not be necessary. A decision tree, with all of its benefits, is not designed for quick, relatively insignificant decisions. (Although, I would argue a dessert selection is one of the most significant decisions a person can make!)

So what else could they do?

To improve the outcome, it is actually quite simple. Instead of prescribing or guessing the wife’s choice, the husband should have asked: “What dessert looks good to you?” Certainly, the husband should not have started with an opinion that was counter to his own.

The wife could have also improved the situation even if the husband did start with his “preferences”. Instead of answering with a strong “yes”, the wife should have made it clear that she wanted the husband to choose. She would be fine if they order the cake, but that she would pick something else if it was up to her. This would have started a conversation and the couple could have avoided dessert disaster.

Key takeaways

When making a decision in a group, be as transparent as possible. You aren’t being a selfless hero by keeping your preferences to yourself. Keeping quiet could result in a less than ideal outcome for all. Even if the group doesn’t go forward with your suggestion, they are better off by thinking through an alternate perspective.

And if you are a leader, understand that people in the room may feel uncomfortable to share an opinion that is counter to your own. Create an atmosphere for open discussion by assigning someone to the devil’s advocate role.

Chicago Booth MBA in Finance, Statistics & Organizational Behavior. American expat living in Switzerland. Passionate about travel, learning and mindful living.

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