advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

My manager listens to idiots

I’m a senior scientist working in research and development in a very technical field (it’s not rocket science, but it’s close). I’m struggling because I have a manager who’s a big fan of “consensus decision-making”. He likes to hear from everyone on the team before making any big calls – like which projects to move forward on, and which to kill. That sounds great and all, but I’m not convinced it’s for the best. We need strong leadership, in my opinion; someone willing to take a stand and stick to their guns. But if we are all going get a say, I think my vote should count for more given my seniority, advanced degree, and experience. I mean, some of my coworkers aren’t even scientists, and they still get to weigh in! So far the approach hasn’t resulted in any major catastrophes, but I’m worried it’s only a matter of time. Should I say something? Or keep quiet and hope our luck holds? – Name withheld

I appreciate your frustration.

Having worked in a technical field myself, I know what it’s like to be the ‘expert’ in the room. I too have believed that my opinion should be given more consideration than the idiots around me. (In my case, however, usually I felt it was my manager who was in over their head.)

Having said that, no. You shouldn’t voice your concerns. Nor would I recommend your workgroup amend it’s decision-making practices to give you more of a say.

Here’s why:

In The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), James Suroweicki explains that groups of people tend to consistently make better decisions than individuals do. This holds true even when that individual is an ‘expert’:

…under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people… (p. xiii)

So no extra vote for you.

Those ‘right circumstances’ are important, though. It is critical, for instance, that everyone included in the process remain independent in their thinking, and that no one individual exercises undue influence over the group. A manager who likes to flex their authority, for example (or perhaps some know-it-all scientist who everyone fears disagreeing with). As Suroweicki explains:

You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you won’t make the group any dumber. (p. 41)

Interestingly, this also means that debate may not always be a good thing. Typically it is the more vocal who get more of a say in such discussions – yet there’s no clear correlation between talkativeness and expertise.[1] Furthermore, debate seems to radicalize opinion rather than moderate it, making agreement even more difficult to achieve. And consensus itself—that is, compromise—can also be a problem according to Suroweicki’s text:

…the search for [compromise] encourages tepid, lowest-common-denominator solutions which offend no one rather than exciting everyone. (p. 203)

But perhaps most relevant to your concern is that decision-making actually benefits when non-experts are included in the process.

Suroweicki points to a study showing groups consisting of both ‘smart agents’ and ‘not-so-smart agents’ almost always outperform groups made up of just experts.[2] The reason for this is speculative, but it seems that those with similar training and/or background tend to hold similar biases, leading them to reach similar conclusions. It is only when someone from the outside disrupts this ‘groupthink’ that truly imaginative—and therefore superior—decisions are possible. As he explains:

You could do as well or better by selecting a group randomly and letting it solve the problem as by spending a lot of time trying to find smart agents and then putting them alone on a problem. (p. 30)

So keep those non-scientists involved too.

All of this, I hope, will give you more confidence in your manager’s approach to decision-making.[3] You and your coworkers needn’t be in total agreement to tap into your collective wisdom, nor dominated by an ‘expert’ such as yourself. As even you admit, thus far ‘catastrophe’ has been avoided.

Consider that this may be because of your workgroup’s approach to decision-making, not in spite of it.

 

NOTES:

[1] Primary reference: E.P. Torrance, “Some Consequences of Power Differences on Decisions in B-26 Crews,” United States Air Force Personnel and Training Research Center research bulletin 54-128 (1954).

[2] Primary reference: Scott Page and Hu Long, “Problem Solving by Heterogeneous Agents” Journal of Economic Theory 97 (2001): 123-63.

[3] Of course, collective decision-making isn’t always appropriate. As Suroweicki himself concedes, you wouldn’t want a bunch of amateurs collectively trying to fly a plane, for example. And while that’s undoubtedly true – I’d bet a paycheck that even here consensus has it’s place. Letting the crowd decide who should fly the plane—not how—is probably going to give you the best chance of safely reaching your destination.

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