It’s an interesting time to be talking about the role of dissent in group decision making. After all, how would you feel if one of your fellow group members had denounced your idea(s) as crazy – and in a national newspaper no less, as happened to the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, recently. It’s also interesting given that a number of organisations are looking to improve group decision making through the introduction of tools such as Devil’s Advocacy- the act of having someone in the group deliberately disagree with and challenge the direction of travel, the proposal or the group’s [pending] decision.
There is no doubt that dissent has a vital role to play in group decision making. Research has shown that dissent can trigger the sharing of key information in the group, which might otherwise not emerge (Brodbeck et al., 2002; Schulz-Hardt et al., 2006). This can prompt greater information exchange and processing in the group, and better group decision outcomes. These are all things that sit at the heart of improving group decision making.
But intragroup dissent, that is, dissent within the group, has a cost. Such dissent can trigger what is known as “Affective Conflict”.
Affective Conflict is indicative of personal friction and personality clashes within the group. It’s dysfunctional and focused on personal incompatibilities and disputes (Amason, 1996). And it’s damaging. It has a negative effect on group harmony, so even if the group manages to come together to back one decision, Affective Conflict makes it unlikely the group will work together to support and implement the decision they have – supposedly collectively – taken. It may impact adversely on how – or even if – the group works effectively together in the future. The damage wrought by “Affective Conflict” is iterative and can lead to a downward spiral within the group. This can severely undermine group effectiveness – a costly price to pay for contrived (or even real) dissent.
The question arises how best to balance this. On the one hand, we want dissent within the group – for all the positive reasons cited – but not with all of the negative outcomes. My research is empirically testing an intervention that induces dissent, but engenders a cooperative environment within the group, rather than a competitive – or even – combative one. Group members motivated by competition are more likely to withhold information and even lie about it or distort it (Toma & Butera, 2009). We don’t want that. Conversely, research shows us that when group members are motivated by cooperation, they are more likely to manage and apply information in a way that serves the group’s collective interest, rather than the individual group members’ interests. That includes achieving the group’s overall goal of making the best decision (De Dreu et al., 2008). That is the outcome we do want.
So, “I disagree” can be helpful. Our group decisions are best served by the presence of some dissent, triggering discussion and debate within the group, but that dissent needs to be positive, to achieve “dissent within cooperation” if you like (Toma et al., 2013). The intervention I am developing and testing in my PhD research offers a way to achieve this.
We are living in a world of tough decisions. The toughest decisions require groups to be working at the top of their game to achieve the best outcomes. If you are interested in hearing more about my work, then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn.
By Dawn Nicholson
Amason, A. C. (1996). Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams. Academy Of Management Journal, 39(1), 123-148. doi:10.2307/256633
Brodbeck, F. C., Kerschreiter, R., Mojzisch, A., Frey, D., & Schulz-Hardt, S. (2002). The dissemination of critical, unshared information in decision-making groups: The effects of pre-discussion dissent. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 32(1), 35-56. doi:10.1002/ejsp.74
De Dreu, C. W., Nijstad, B. A., & van Knippenberg, D. (2008). Motivated information processing in group judgment and decision making. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 12(1), 22-49. doi:10.1177/1088868307304092
Schulz-Hardt, S., Brodbeck, F. C., Mojzisch, A., Kerschreiter, R., & Frey, D. (2006). Group decision making in hidden profile situations: Dissent as a facilitator for decision quality. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 91(6), 1080-1093. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.110
Toma, C., & Butera, F. (2009). Hidden profiles and concealed information: Strategic information sharing and use in group decision making. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 793-806. doi:10.1177/0146167209333176
Toma, C., Gilles, I., & Butera, F. (2013). Strategic use of preference confirmation in group decision making: The role of competition and dissent. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 52(1), 44-63. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2011.02037.x