Facilitator Journal | Issue #0530, March 13, 2012
It's easy to be frustrated by group meetings. This is largely due to the pervasive
and inaccurate assumption that group thought should be just as simple
and efficient to manage as individual thought. This attitude prevalent among most meeting participants contributes to harsh judgments upon themselves
and their peers, leading to apathy, inaction, and the continual
self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don't work.
This week's article, Avoid Collective Incompetence,
attempts to shine some light on the complexities of group dynamics
and looks at what typically goes wrong in groups to help us better
appreciate the challenges, and opportunities, presented whenever we
meet collectively. Please share this article with your fellow meeting
attendees and group leaders. Perhaps it will help take some of the
sting out of our collective abhorrence of group meetings and lead
to their improvement.
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Avoid Collective Incompetence
the sources of collective incompetence.
People tend to get
easily frustrated by group meetings. And how can we blame them? The vast
majority of meetings we've attended throughout our lives have been less
than uplifting, to say the least. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone
in modern society who would tell you that they actually enjoy attending
meetings. "Oh no. Not another meeting!" Or, "I look forward to meetings.
They help me catch up on my sleep." Cliches abound in modern culture
that attest to our abhorrence of meetings.
Part of this problem though can be attributed to our pervasive ignorance
of the complexities of facilitating group thought. Most tend to think
that the groups they lead, or are part of, should operate just as efficiently
as they do individually. This is in fact untrue. Further, the belief in
this fallacy by your typical meeting-goer contributes to harsh judgment
upon themselves and other participants, leading to apathy, inaction, and
the continual self-fulfilling prophecy of meetings that just don't work.
light on the complexities of group dynamics and looking at things that
typically go wrong in groups can help us better appreciate the challenges
and opportunities presented to us whenever we meet collectively.
Why are groups so complicated?
of individuals are far more likely to err than individuals. Groups give
instincts which individuals acting alone are forced to keep in check.
-- T.B. Macaulay, English author and statesman --
of Group Mind
It seems obvious that when a number of individual minds come together,
more complexity emerges simply out of the shear increase in the number
of inputs, outputs, and interconnections available. There are more ideas
in the room, far more for each individual to keep track of, and there
are more relationship dynamics present together packaged with their spoken
and unspoken assumptions and prejudices.
Because of this increase in complexity, there exist the capacity for synergy
to emerge, where the capability of the group exceeds the sum of its parts.
But given that groups are more complex and their interactions are often
faulty, they are harder to manage. For this reason, synergy rarely emerges
by accident. Just as easily, and more often than not, groups tend to drift
toward collective incompetence.
George Kieffer, in his book, The Strategy of Meetings, explains
this phenomenon beautifully in the following metaphor...
"... you cannot
afford to view meetings as likely in and of themselves to culminate in
positive results without a great deal of work. Meetings are inherently
risky enterprises, mobs in waiting, more susceptible to passions, pieties,
persuasion, and manipulation of all kinds and degrees than are the individuals
who participate in them. Meetings begin with the same risk of injury as
a motor vehicle containing a steering wheel at each passenger seat."
Therefore, it’s very important to recognize the inherent limitations of
group thought, that we elaborate on below, and yet maintain respect and
appreciate for both the process and the particular individuals in attendance.
Limitations of Group Mind.
Group Amnesia. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, in studying
the human mind has found that the most that we can hold in short-term
memory without forgetting something is six or seven pieces of data. Therefore,
a group of people will remember and forget different information at any
given time. This validates the ongoing need for real time recording of
the inputs, actions, and decisions of your group.
Dissonance. People dislike inconsistency and will attempt to
eliminate it. When mental conflict occurs because beliefs or assumptions
are contradicted by new information, people will tend to suppress, rationalize,
avoid, or oversimplify it away. Know that this phenomenon exists, educate
your peers about it, and if you must avoid the complex issues, at least
acknowledge you're doing it and perhaps plan another time to deal with
from Task. Because group thinking is so difficult, individuals
actually tend to disassociate from the task. Yet you may think it's just
you who has drifted and that everyone else is on top of everything being
discusses. Not likely! But wanting to refrain from appearing stupid and
wanting to be accepted, you go ahead and agree with whatever is on the
table. Everyone is missing something...so risk being the fool and speak
Lowest Common Denominator and Highest Risk. The most
common response of the group mind appears to be this: to reach a conclusion
on the stated task, in the safest possible way so as to avoid division,
and as quickly as possible, the group finds a consensus based on the lowest
common denominator. The result is a compromise that may not solve the
problem but does salve feelings and egos.
Lowest Common Level of Stupidity. Drs. David Charney
and William Anixter specialize in treatment of anxiety and note that the
most common malady, ahead of substance abuse and depression, is the individual’s
fear of groups, affecting some 40% of the public to some degree. Convinced
that it really is a matter of body chemistry, Victor Palmieri offers an
only partially facetious cure. “There is a change in body chemistry, a
drop in acuity to the lowest common level of stupidity, so when you see
confusion in a meeting the important thing is to get out of the room as
quickly as you can before your body chemistry changes!”
we have shown, group dynamics are more complex and difficult than individual
dynamics. Hence, in any meeting you attend, the participants think less
clearly as a group than the sum of the intelligence would suggest and less
clearly than any single member may recognize at any particular moment. Group
members tend to disassociate from the real task and move toward levels of
abstraction. So it behooves us all, group leader and attendees alike to
know the sources of collective incompetence and do our best to limit them.
Individuals come to a meeting with different abilities, experience,
intelligence, language, styles, and body language. Know that miscommunication
is inevitable and there’s continual need for clarification.
Remedy. Therefore, avoid arguing your own views. Instead present your position
and more importantly, your interests, as clearly as you can and listen carefully to others' reactions, considering
them carefully before you press your point.
pressures. A meeting is often the focal point for decisions
made elsewhere. Pressures brought to bear on participants from the outside
can affect meetings far more than actions within.
Remedy. Don’t assume aspirations of meeting participants are clear. Reverse
that presumption. Ask yourself what pressures weigh on your prospective
Agenda. Every individual comes into the meeting with his or
her own personal agenda to accomplish. And in many forms of meetings,
these are very appropriate.
Remedy. But don’t assume that personal agendas align with the stated meeting
agenda. Ask yourself what’s behind a criticism or a suggestion.
and basic human needs. We tend to go mad in herds, but tend
to recover one by one. To suggest change or to question, one must first
speak as an individual and expose oneself.
Remedy. Don’t presume understanding and accord merely because
no one speaks. There is nearly always a difference of opinion around
the table. The most powerful interests in any meeting are the basic
human needs of the participants…economic well-being, sense of belonging,
need for recognition, and control of one’s life.
Feelings. Personal feelings about fellow participants or about
the meeting itself will always distort comments in the meeting and undermine
Remedy. Do your best to separate ideas and opinions from the people presenting
them, and aggressively prevent or protect all participants from personal
A meeting provides a forum for assessing and expressing status within
the group, and that will affect the behavior of group members.
Remedy. Accept that this is going on to some extent in any meeting.
Every meeting will have distractions from the late arrivals and early
departures, to uncomfortable surroundings, to telephone interruptions,
poor technical facilities, etc. Even when there are few outside distractions,
all participants tend to wander from time to time resulting in a short
circuit of the group mind.
Remedy. Presume you are losing some members all of the time and do what you
can to limit distractions and keep everyone involved.
displacement and buzz words. This is a particular form of distraction
that can strike at any time. A “buzz” word can throw off a line of thought
or a glib participant can send out the wrong data or information without
Remedy. Thought displacement goes with the territory, presume it’s happening
throughout the meeting and ask for clarification whenever you notice
- The Laws
of Triviality and Avoidance. “The time spent on any item of
the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved,” claims
Professor Parkinson. Further, the time spent will be in inverse proportion
to the complexity or difficulty of the issue: law of avoidance. Complex
matters, irrespective of money, tend to be ignored, and simple matters
tend to be belabored. People are simply more comfortable discussing
what they know rather than what they don’t know. And most people want
to demonstrate what they know rather than what they don’t. This means
groups avoid the tough questions and concentrate on the easy ones.
Remedy. Expect this tendency in all your meetings and point in out whenever
you see it. Offer options to meeting separately to address the tough
issues if possible and appropriate.
and Roles. Some personalities simply don’t mix. And irrespective
of personalities, individuals naturally take on certain roles depending
upon other participants: the facilitator, the disrupter, the complainer,
and so on.
Remedy. Just be aware of this...that nearly everyone adopts a role of some kind
during a meeting and nearly everyone harbors feelings about the other
Members and the Lowest Common Denominator. An incompetent or
destructive participant tends can derail a meeting, bringing the whole
group to his level. He can force others to respond to peripheral issues
and encourage disassociation from the task. Fear of hurting his feelings,
disrupting the group further, or reverence for democracy may allow him
to take the meeting over. The group tends to defer, dropping to the
Lowest Common Denominator.
Remedy. This tendency is counteracted by the facilitator's imperative...the
unflinching control of process.
- In Summary.
Good intentions are no match for collective incompetence whose sources
reside in all meetings. Meeting participants need to know that it takes
far more work to accomplish their goals than they think. Remember all
of these hurdles when planning and developing your strategy for your
next meeting. By understanding these forces and how they’re likely to
manifest during the meeting you can devise strategies that will make
them work for you, not against you.
Add Your Comments
What sources of collective incompetence have you noticed most and what
have you done about it? Would could you do differently in the future? Please click on Add Your Comments to share your experiences, questions, or feedback.
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