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3 tips for leading group discussions

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say: we did it ourselves" - Lao Tzu

Thank you for joining me for another blog (#39), highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

We are currently exploring group dynamics and how that impacts decision-making. Today's topic is around how leaders can create an atmosphere for openness and good decision-making. How the leader approaches a discussion can set the tone.

Last week's discussion around super-teams (How do world-beating teams decide? ( showed that the best teams have very little formal hierarchy when they come to decide. That tends not to be the set up in businesses, and hierarchical structures exist throughout the military, politics and other settings like courtrooms.

The role of leaders (and yes, I used the word leaders rather than managers) is to create environments that i) encourage open discussion, ii) moves the discussion towards a conclusion and iii) gets everyone behind the decision made.

1) Don't look to be proven right, look for the truth

The biggest corruption of group decision-making is that through individual character or misaligned incentives, those in the room are not united in a common purpose of finding the best solution for the organisation they represent. This corruption is doubly felt if the person leading the discussion is guilty of that too. Put another way, leaders risk being surrounded by "Yes men and women" if they do not create the atmosphere for independently minded people to state their views.

How do we avoid this?

a) Create an open-minded atmosphere: Start with the foundational questions i) what do we know? ii) what can we reasonably expect given history iii) what don't we know that might be critical to this decision iv) how does this decision fit in with other decisions we have made.

b) Prepare and expect others to prepare: Coming to an important decision without prep is a sure-fire way to decrease the ability of the group to come to a good conclusion and to make people feel like they did not get a chance to share their thought-through views.

(My research on meetings suggests that most people end up having very little time to prepare given their schedule of back-to-back meetings. Packed out meeting schedules is a scourge on good decision-making.)

c) Share your opinion last: Once a leader has publicly stated their view, many people cannot help but agree with them. You are unlikely to be the expert in every respect so make sure you get the best information out from the group before your intervention. It also allows you to incorporate what you have heard, and in the spirit of open-mindedness change your mind.

d) Discourage deference: create expectations that if someone has a view it is shared for the benefit of the group regardless of whose view it might be different too. Reward people for well thought through and vocal contribution rather than mutual back-scratching. Strongly encourage listening to others' viewpoints regardless of seniority.

2) "Shepherd" the discussion

Getting the discussion moving forward is another important leadership skill. If an open-minded discussion is proceeding the risks are that a discussion veers off into a dead-end or the conversation centres around a controversial point.

a) Credibility weight time: Highest credibility people on a particular topic get to speak most about a subject (as opposed to seniority, or extrovert-weight). This will mean sometimes curating the discussion and asking people 'how are you thinking about this?'. This will also mean, asking people to pass the mic, if they have outstayed their welcome.

b) Avoid analysis paralysis: this is especially important with time sensitive decisions. Focus on what makes 80% of the difference get that right before we start discussing the minutiae.

c) Ask good non-leading questions: phrase questions that do not state being in favour or against. Seek clarification, ask about assumptions and logic and bring out tenuous jumps or important implications. Your job is to help people bring out their points well and fully.

3) Conclude properly

a) Summarise: In the room, summarise what has been discussed and highlight specific action points with names and deadlines. Allow people to chime in if there is anything that has been misstated or missed out.

b) Disagree and commit: In a good discussion, everyone has had their chance to put forward their views and listen to others'. If people disagree with the decision the group has made, that does not let them off the hook for being committed to its execution. A leader expects everyone to get behind the group decisions.

c) Act: Ensure your discussions have a reputation for action. If you know you have to commit to something that will happen, it will make you pay attention and try and influence the outcome. You can comfortably coast through a discussion where nothing is decided.

So What?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Leaders set the tone for discussions, and they can get the best out of their group by i) preparing well, ii) discouraging deference, iii) sharing their opinion last.

2) Leaders shepherd discussions well by i) getting the experts on a topic the appropriate time, ii) by avoiding getting bogged down on details that have little impact and iii) asking questions that help clarify thought rather than leading to a particular conclusion

3) Leaders i) summarise conclusions and action points clearly, ii) expect everyone to abide by group decisions and iii) maintain a reputation for action

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'Group dynamics - a summary'.

If you enjoyed this article, here are some you might like in the back catalogue:


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