Avoiding the Fireman in a Startup and Other Lessons in Group Dynamics

Yesterday I had a group of my students participate in a group dynamics simulation. It’s a pretty standard one – a group is stranded in the dessert and needs to figure out which items to salvage from the crashed plane.  I am happy to report that my students now have sufficient training to prioritize items and perhaps survive in a desert environment.  And people suggest an undergraduate degree has no value….

Actually, the simulation is a very useful teaching tool, because it reveals important things about how people approach group decision making.  The process of group decision making is particularly relevant to startups, since they tend to have flat, consensus driven decision making structures, particularly in the seed and early stages.  Moreover, the vibe of startup formation, shaped by the hacker culture that spawned Jobs, Gates and the rest, tends towards consensus and inclusiveness.  Therefore, appreciation of the risks in group dynamics is an essential management tool for startup founders.

To understand group dynamics, you need first to appreciate that group behavior is very much shaped by deeply held cultural attitudes towards leadership and following.  I have worked in a number of business cultures over my career, and I have experienced very different group dynamics where cultural experiences are unique.  For example, during my time working in a Japanese investment bank, I found that group consensus was extremely important, even to the point of avoiding confrontation where it would have resulted in a better result.  My experience working in groups in the UK was very different, where hierarchy often was subtlety used to shape decisions or dictate outcomes.

Here in the US, group dynamics begins with a cultural attitude that is based on expectations of equivalence.  This is not surprising in light of the dominant cultural meme of American civic experience – equality and expectations of equal treatment are deeply ingrained, and decision making is supposed to be democratic.  Absent rules to the otherwise, in a group situation Americans generally assume that all are equally entitled to an opinion and to have those opinions acknowledged.  The second cultural meme that is very important is the concept of the “decider.”  Americans particularly value people that make decisions and are incisive, because this harkens back to the image of the independent settler on the frontier; think Marlboro Man and you get the picture.  These two American cultural memes have a number of important offshoots for group decision making in our business culture:

There is an expectation that all decisions will be made by a majority.  This is an important point – consensus is not required.  What is expected is that opinions get heard and expressed.  You will often hear employees talk about the importance of being “valued” in an organization.  They are expressing their level of satisfaction of “being heard by management.”

The importance of employee acknowledgement cannot be overstated.  Acknowledgement of their importance to others in an organization is a primary determinant of employee morale and productivity.  Note that this is not the same thing as agreement – people do not expect to be right.  They expect to be included.  A mistake that founders often make is to confuse the need for groups to be consulted with the need for groups to make every decision.  And, here is why – left to its own to function in accordance with accepted memes group decision making is much less likely to make good decisions.  Why?  Because group consensus drives decision making towards the commonly held opinion, and levels out the specific knowledge individual group members might have.  Interestingly, at an instinctive level groups appreciate this, and that makes then susceptible to influence and shaping by an emergent decider.

Groups tend to gravitate towards one or more deciders.  If a group does not have an obvious candidate for a decider, it will select one.  How this selection occurs will dictate how effective a group’s decision-making is.

How deciders occur in a group will very much affect its decision making:

  • The most dangerous decider is the self-selected leader who talks louder and more confidently than his peers.  I like to call these folks Generalissimos – since they remind me of the leader of a coup in a faraway land – no one elected them, they just took over.
  • A more insidious and harmful decider is the passive aggressive group member.  This is a person who does not lead the decision making process, or suggest solutions, but instead expresses negative sentiment over any idea proposed by other group members. I call these types of deciders firemen, because whenever I watch a fireman decider act in a group situation the image I have in my mind is a person using a fire hose to drench the enthusiasm of those around them.
  • In many organizational settings, particularly larger organizations, there are expectations of hierarchy.  Therefore, one or more people in the group are often given a title and role with the organizational expectation that they will be deciders.  The challenge here is if the group perceives the designated decider as not being capable.  Any discordance between job title and decision making skills creates dysfunction in a group and will make it less effective.
  • Groups that select deciders through consensus function best.  I call deciders that come out of this process elevated deciders.   Group members evaluate each other, and tend to follow over time the members that make the most insightful contributions or are proven to be right over time.  This process of group selection of elevated deciders is subtle – generally there is no election per se, but over time the elevated decider becomes the leader of the group and starts to look an awful lot like a manager.

Groups are powerful and punishing.  If you have ever been to a comedy club you know what I mean.  A comedian that doesn’t command immediate attention loses the crowd quickly.  When people group they tend to be much harder on individuals who do not conform to group norms, or perform the way that the group expects.  Since the underlying expectation is that all people in a group are equal, any one that steps into a leadership role is evaluated with a bias against acceptance.  The phrase “who died and left you king” is often on the mind of group members, whether they say so or not.

Group dynamics in a startup is very similar to a comedy club.  People who assert authority that the group does not support will find it impossible to lead.  Organizations that do not create positive group dynamics will most likely fail.  You don’t have to be a good comedian to succeed in a startup, but you had better understand the unspoken expectations of your employees and colleagues.

The key to group dynamics is to be, or find, a good decider.  A good decider is a person who can balance the expectations of group dynamics, to channel the best that a group has to offer into a coherent outcome.

The best deciders tend to be self-aware people, and able to generate respect from those she decides with.  Strong deciders have an ability to understand how to connect with people around them and allow them to feel acknowledged and consulted.  Confidence is also very important.  It is important to note that I am not suggesting that deciders have to be funny, nice or even polite.  They just have to be capable of being a positive and respected fulcrum for the group to share information and reach a conclusion.

What does this all mean to an entrepreneur?  A few final thoughts:

  1. Group decision making without some guidance is a path to bad decision making, or at least decisions that are less informed than they could be if the group had a good decider.
  2. Firemen and Generalissimos must be identified and rooted out of groups, or at least neutralized.  They are relatively easy to spot in a group that has been working together for a little while – when they speak the other group members roll their eyes, look away or fold their arms.  In other words, you can see the group shun them, even if they won’t shout them down.  Always be aware of people in your organization whose default answer to everything is “can’t be done.”  They had better be pretty useful to you to keep them around, and if you do, you might want to consider having them work by themselves.
  3. Avoid discordance between organizational title and group decider.  If someone has a title that demands respect, but the person holding the title does not have the respect of a group, you are heading towards bad decision making, and low employee morale.
  4. If you are attempting to influence a group, do so through quiet and repeated competence. Groups keep quiet score.