The common information effect is killing your team

One of the biggest problems in teams is the so-called common information effect. And it works like this.

Team mate A comes across some information, team mate B comes across some information, and team mate C comes across some information. Some of this information will be unique to them, but some will be known to one or both of the other team mates, that is common information.

Which information do you think gets talked about more?

Common or unique?

In teams we overwhelmingly talk about common information, when we really want to be discussing unique information.

But common information is more likely to be raised, and will be instantly reinforced. Which will make you feel valued by your team members causing common information to be discussed even more.

It is more likely to be repeated in meetings and thus recalled after meetings over unique information. And it is perceived more credible than unique information.

This leads to a fatal effect in teams, where common information is discussed more than unique information. This fundamentally goes against what a team is trying to do, come up with new insights and act upon them.

How can you change this?

Minimize differences in formal  authority 

It is no secret that we defer to authority, the Milgram experiments proved that we look to authority figures for guidance.

But research also shows that people who hold lower formal authority are especially at risk of not producing unique information.

If you are a team leader, let your team discuss issues and problems themselves and get involved only when solutions are being better defined.

Pay attention to unique information

Listen to responses from team mates, if you hear something you’ve not heard before, highlight it, pause the discussion even if you were talking about another subject. Ask for that information to be repeated, ask questions and encourage engagement by other team members.

Encourage participation

One of the biggest reasons why unique information isn’t shared, is because team members don’t get the time to talk.

In an average group eight-person group three people do 77% of the talking and in a six person group, three people do 86% of the talking.

Make sure you encourage talking by all team members, ask open questions of each team member, get them to comment on the discussion and make sure you communicate that you value their opinion.

Think about how you can implement procedural rules that promote the discovery of unique information. Some ideas are;

  • Have one-to-one calls or email discussions with individual team members before meetings.
  • Go round the table and ask each person on their thoughts on particular issues.
  • Set the rules for debate and encourage critical thinking amongst your team mates.

Agree and implement the rules of debate information and critical thinking

Research from Amsterdam shows that if you agree how to discuss issues, agree to apply critical thinking to all problems, and constantly apply these rules, then you are three times more likely to find and act upon unique information when compared to teams that promote consensus and getting along.

Frame things as a “problem to be solved”, rather than an issue or decision.

We are more likely to produce unique insights when we believe there is a problem to be solved. Using words such as issue or decision doesn’t prompt us to think of new ideas or look at ways to solve  problems. Make sure you define the problem well and communicate it to all team members.

Rank alternatives rather than choose the best option

Andrea Hollingshead from the University of Illinois, showed that when we rank the alternatives we are much more likely to produce unique information for each of those options. If we focus on the best solution we tend to stay locked in and focussed on the options we like the best.

Promote expertise difference amongst team members 

We are much more likely to pay attention to unique  information if we believe that our team mates have different areas of expertise. As a team leader, highlight the different expertise amongst your team members, use coffee breaks and lunch times to ask questions about each person’s role and expertise. Much sure that expertise difference is highlighted to other team members.

As a leader, you can only set the boundaries and develop an environment that promotes success. There is always going to be something we don’t know, but we can ensure we increase our chances of finding it out.

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