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The Hazards of Agreement

Was it strategy or serendipity that placed Collaborative Leadership as our first required class in the MSC program? I haven’t sought out a formal answer, but it certainly feels strategic, because a large part of this course is randomly-assigned team activities, meaning we have an embedded opportunity every Saturday to get to know new people in our cohort. The other boon of these incredibly engaging team sessions is that they bring to life key concepts on how people work together (and don’t) as a result of behavioral biases.

I can’t describe these in-class activities in detail, because that would ruin legitimate Aha! Moments for future MSCers. But I would like to share one of my favorite new behavioral biases. (I’m in the creative field, so I collect these things like Beanie Babies.)

Meet the common knowledge effect. Actually, you already know it well if you’ve ever participated in any kind of meeting, ever. You just might not have known it by its formal moniker. Defined, it’s the demonstration ″that an irrelevant factor—the number of members who know a particular piece of information—can affect group decisions. If a piece of unshared information is crucial to making a correct decision, the result may be an incorrect decision.″

msc_blog_1In effect, pieces of common knowledge tend to dominate discussion time and disproportionately drive decisions. Person A shares something that’s familiar to both Person B and Person C, who express their agreement, and suddenly there’s the hopeful glimmer of consensus on the horizon. This effect is compounded as more of this “common knowledge” is shared out and validated to by other group members. Unique (“unshared”) information—something only known by Person C, for example—may be less likely to be contributed to the discussion if it doesn’t follow the trend of the common knowledge. Or, if Person C does speak up, their unique knowledge holds less weight in the decision-making process compared any piece of common knowledge.

It’s all in the (bad) math. A piece of common knowledge appears to get “multiplied” by the factor of the individuals who share it. Unique knowledge (which only has one voice behind it) is the underdog by magnitudes, depending how many people are in the meeting and just how common their common knowledge is!

You can imagine how this effect must pose an invisible but real barrier to innovation in organizations as they habitually reconfirm and recycle what’s already commonly known. So how do we save ourselves from the feel-good spirit of easy agreement and invite shifts in the conversation that might seem deviant–or even, well, unproductive? 

Soul-searching questions–but they’re what I signed up for. 

Jennifer Lindner

MSC Class of 2017