Newly formed teams are often encouraged or even required to engage in team-building techniques and exercises, which might range from volunteering at a nonprofit together to sharing little-known secrets about each other to building a tower out of marshmallows and spaghetti. Although such activities can be effective at building bonds and trust, they don’t do much to address some of the pitfalls of working in teams. And, in fact, they can actually exacerbate some of those pitfalls.
As individuals, our decision making in negotiation is routinely and systematically impaired by cognitive, emotional, and perceptual biases. For example, our thoughts tend to “anchor” on the first offer made in a negotiation, even if it’s outrageous; anger—even anger unrelated to the negotiation—can lead us to make impulsive and risky decisions; and our bounded awareness can prevent us from noticing critical information that would improve our results.
As collections of individuals, teams are susceptible to all of these negotiation biases as well, but they also face biases unique to groups. By focusing their team-building techniques on warding off and overcoming biases, negotiating teams can make wiser joint decisions and get better deals.
Biases that Hold Groups Back
The following three group negotiation biases commonly prevent teams from doing their best work:
- An “us versus them” mentality. In the process of bonding, groups, including negotiation teams, tend to develop an “us versus them” attitude that can lead them to demonize outsiders. This bias can be especially strong in negotiation, given the prevalent tendency to view negotiation as a competition. When teams of negotiators view each other as the enemy, they will have difficulty sharing information and creating value—and they might even be tempted to engage in unethical negotiation tactics.
- Failure to capitalize on diversity. Instead of drawing out the unique information possessed by individual members, teams tend to focus on the information they all share, researchers Garold Stasser and William Titus have found. As a result, they often overlook key data that would improve their decisions.
- Group opinion tends to coalesce around the team’s growing consensus and to exclude information that might challenge those views, a phenomenon that Irving L. Janis dubbed groupthink. Those who disagree with the prevailing view often feel uneasy about speaking up. Once again, valuable data is left out of the equation.
Team-Building Techniques for Bias Reduction
Though effective at improving team cohesion, traditional team-building techniques, such as bonding exercises, can exacerbate group biases by creating the illusion that a team is invincible, infallible, and fully united.
To avoid such flawed thinking, negotiating teams would be wise to engage in the following nontraditional team-building techniques, which are aimed at reducing harmful biases and improving group decision making:
- Promote a more nuanced understanding of the other side. To avoid oversimplifying, underestimating, or villainizing the team across the table from you, be sure that your team’s negotiation preparation includes a thorough exploration of the other team’s (or teams’) interests, positions, and background. The more you understand about the other team, the better equipped you will be to engage in the type of deep, nuanced exploration of both teams’ interests that can lead to real breakthroughs in negotiation.
- Identify unique knowledge and expertise. Abundant research shows that diversity is an asset to teams and groups. When team members come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse experiences and knowledge, they bring information and perspectives to the table that can contribute to better decision making, according to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino. But this diversity won’t be an asset if it’s ignored. In your negotiating team, explicitly discuss the unique contributions you each bring to the group before your substantive discussions begin.
- Welcome disagreement. To overcome the common tendency among teams to engage in groupthink, when your own negotiating team convenes, make it one of your negotiation goals to accept dissent and disagreement within your team when it emerges. Rather than ignoring or dismissing diverging opinions, encourage dissenters to present their views formally, being sure to give them the time and resources they need to research them fully. In addition, your group might explicitly assign one or more members to play the role of devil’s advocate by poking holes in the group’s prevailing opinions. In this manner, you can expand your view of the negotiation and make smarter decisions.
Have you used any other team-building techniques to overcome bias in your negotiating teams?