All politics aside, ever wonder why it seems so hard for high ranking government officials to come to an agreement? Why is it that these powerful men and women have so much trouble with consensus building? Well, recent research by UC Berkeley researchers Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson has shown that power can actually impede performance when it comes to working with others of similar high ranking. In fact, it was found that in groups of low, medium, and highly powered members, only 41% of the high-powered groups were able to reach agreement in experiments, versus 88% of the low-powered groups. What’s more, in similar studies which instead measured group’s creativity, groups comprised of high powered individuals consistently underperformed their lower powered peers.
The issue is that when we have a natural hierarchy we implicitly know our roles and where we fit into the decision making process. However, this all gets thrown out the window when there is no clear pecking order. Throw four senior VPs into a room together and what you get is basically an intellectual standoff, all parties feeling that they have equal firepower. Unfortunately, this leaves them feeling like they could potentially lose status by conceding points, or give away favor to a competitor through knowledge sharing.
So how do we combat this recurrent phenomenon that plagues our higher-ups? Hildreth and Anderson have a couple of ideas. One suggestion is to allow lower level stakeholders to meet first with the intention of creating a framework for decision making so that higher ranking decision makers already have something to work from instead of starting from scratch. Another is to orchestrate the meeting such that each high-ranking participant has some time at the helm such that they can present their viewpoint and broadcast their level of importance. Once they feel people understand how significant they are, then they can move on to the more important task of collaborating on a solution to the problem at hand.
We believe that another good option is to consider using third-party facilitators in these types of problem-solving sessions to ensure that the meetings stay on task. Having a neutral third party can be very helpful in keeping things congenial and in making sure everyone gets a say as well. Moreover, it is helpful to use consensus-building measures in the meeting which ensure that there is discussion about the reasons behind proposals, not simple yes / no agreements on the ideas presented. This makes sure the big picture goals are kept in mind during the session.
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