Tag Archives: Stanley Milgram

Irrationality at the service of rationality in decision-making

The shared decision, or group decision, is one of the fundamental stones of modern western civilization, democracy itself is based on this concept. But how far do groups make the best decision? How much of the expected goal – as a group decision – is obtained from a project approval committee or team meeting to validate the schedule?

Arthur's Round Table

In Arthur’s reign, decisions were shared by peers

Legend has it that King Arthur had a round table for meetings, the Round Table, where all were equal and therefore were equally involved in the decisions taken there. In the company where we work, we like the idea of participating in relevant events, including decision making, this is the natural desire for democracy, even if a company is not a democratic institution.

Group decision-making in companies is an administrative theory that aims at several advantages such as increased workplace satisfaction, motivation as a result of participation, and which ultimately results in a positive organizational atmosphere as well as increased productivity. The popular concept that “many heads think better than one” can materialize in decisions with levels of quality superior to those individual decisions. We just do not know what to do with the perception that team decision-making can be unproductive and frustrating for wasting time – and money.

Max Gehringer, business administrator and writer, author of the book Classics of the Corporate World, says in his article The Seven Rules of the “Never” Manual for Projects: “Never try to convince if you can command.”

The Milgram's Experience

Milgram’s Experiment: E=Experimenter, S=Subject, A=Actor

There is a macabre aspect of group decision-making and it is inherent to the main actor on stage: the human being. In 1964, an experiment led by psychologist Stanley Milgram placed a group of volunteers in a room on the other side of which, separated by a thin wall, one of the randomly selected volunteers was positioned sitting and tied to a chair. With every question the researcher made to the man obtaining a wrong answer, the group would press a button that would inflict an electric shock on the volunteer. At first the shocks were light and fast, but over time they became strong and intense – and so did the shouts of the volunteer. Finally, after a long shock, the man was silent, and a bad atmosphere took over the place. Of course this was an experiment, and the man, a real actor, was never inflicted any shock. What was important in the research was the finding that the group lost sense of responsibility – in this case, for the punishment – since the decision was made by the group rather than by the individual. A control test showed that being an individual decision, the participants did not inflict this level of electric shock to the poor man.

Free Vermeulen

Freek Vermeulen, author of Business Exposed

The London Business School professor and author of the book Business Exposed, Freek Vermeulen, talks about people’s inclination to imitate others’ behavior. In fact, this is perhaps one of our first impulses, and the one responsible for our learning to speak, to walk and … to make decisions. It is easy to imagine a decision-making meeting where the first one who ventures into giving an opinion is followed by the others, while another group simply omits. Moreover, the omission is explained by Freek as an inhibition and not as a sign of agreement; “those who are silent, consent”. The fact is that nobody likes to be the minority, either when cheering for a football team or during a major decision in the company. “The consequence of this is that, in a meeting, it may happen that everyone is diverging, but no one speaks up because they are reluctant,” says the professor.

So what do we do with the shared decision, now that we have demonized it? Sometimes it is necessary to tear down walls to build foundations. So let’s learn how to extract from shared decision your best and in the best possible way, in order to ensure that in a project approval committee, or in the team meeting for validation – and of course approval – we achieve superior commitment and maturity.

Norman Maier, an American experimental psychologist, advocates for the method of group decision-making in the practice of effective command. In his studies, Maier takes into account two dimensions. The first is the internal social weight, and the second is the weight in organizational efficiency. By creating a matrix of these two dimensions, we can fit each decision into a quartile. Maier concluded that it is possible to significantly reduce the bias of shared decision by electing a “professional integrator.”


Maier’s imaginary matrix for decision model

This figure is responsible for keeping a high level of discussion, valuing the sphere of information and skilfully leading to the choice of a solution. The professional integrator takes place in critical decisions, where the room for maneuver is reduced, and the group can not decide beyond certain limits. There is one more aspect in this form of decision making, to get a decision that is not a decision. The integrator manipulates the group to a more or less predetermined decision, giving word to the right person, suspending the meeting, or declaring the meeting finished at the appropriate time. Skill is essential to accomplish all of this without the members having a perception of manipulation while getting the best of the process of resistance to change, the “acceptance of the consequences of the decision.”

Manhattan Connection guys

Manhattan Connection program commentators. Lucas Mendes (center) is an example of a Maier’s professional integrator

The model suggested by Maier reminds me a lot of the Manhattan Connection program (despite its name, a brazilian show), shown on the Globo News paid channel. On air for 19 years, political, economic and cultural commentators debate on several highlights of the week. A table of discussion sometimes chaotic, but that is expertly coordinated by journalist Lucas Mendes, who plays the role of professional animator, bringing the subject and directing the discussion until reaching (almost always) the result. Result which you can imagine beforehand to be the one expected.

Planning for shared decision-making, and carrying out the process in a less orthodox way, can make it easy to implement a good decision-making system. The effort expended on the activity is rewarded with motivation, participation and commitment of those involved in the practical implementation of the decision.