October 7, 2013

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Univ. of Utah Study: Overconfidence Blocks Experts from Contributing

Press Release

October 7, 2013

Salt Lake City — The experience is a common one, no matter the workplace environment.

A meeting is called, and it’s immediately hijacked by the most extroverted or most confident member of the group. Before anyone in the room has had a chance to think, let alone say a word, the confident loudmouth is pushing the group into decisions, based on little more than the force of that person’s personality.

New research co-authored by professors at the University of Utah and Idaho State University shows that those confident meeting-usurpers are no more likely to find the correct answer to a problem than their quieter peers. And a simple change in meeting management can push the misinformed to the sidelines and let the truly knowledgeable members take over, resulting in better decision-making for the company and more-engaged employees putting their talents to full use.

“I spend a lot of time working in groups and committees, and it gets really frustrating because the people who project that they know what they’re talking about actually often don’t,” said Bryan Bonner, a professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. “The reason confident people have a lot of influence is that the people around them aren’t really prepared to disprove what they’re saying. So I asked myself, ‘Can you figure out, using experiments, how you can separate the people who just sound like they know what they’re doing from the people who really do know what they’re doing?’ And it turns out you can, and it’s actually not that hard to do.”

Bonner and co-author Alexander Bolinger of Idaho State University studied groups through an exercise where they were gathered to collectively solve problems. One group started working straightaway, while the other was told to take a few minutes to explore the problems and consider the knowledge related to the questions at hand that each of the group members already possessed.

“Just having them do that, thinking about how they can bring their own knowledge to bear, those groups were no longer inordinately influenced by the overly confident people,” Bonner said. “What we found was that those groups were now giving weight to the experts in their group. Now they’re listening to the people who really know, and the confident people are influential if they know something, and not if they don’t.”

The groups who did not take the time to think were most likely to be influenced by the confident members of the group—with the result that their problem-solving performance was lower than the groups where the members took a few minutes to reflect on the knowledge they could contribute to their groups, framing knowledge as the priority.

A simple shift in how a manager starts his meetings can prove invaluable, judging by the study’s results, slated to be published in the November issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes under the title “Separating the confident from the correct: Leveraging member knowledge in groups to improve decision-making and performance.” Bonner said rather than starting a meeting with status-first—with the chair of the meeting making an announcement, for example—there are better ways to get the best input from employees.

“It’s better to start the meeting by saying, ‘Alright, before we get to the problem-solving part, let’s get all the information out there,’” Bonner said. “It’s almost like a brainstorming thing. Let’s get all the information out there on the table, an inclusive process where we get contributions from everybody.”

Pushing for facts over a merely confident approach is an easy solution to the problems that arise from status-driven meetings, Bonner said. It’s also just smart business.

“For you to be an effective manager, you need to be leveraging your teams as well as you can,” Bonner said. “You need to be getting everything you can out of them. To do that, you can’t let experts be silenced by those with more confidence but less knowledge. When you have people who know stuff, and they’re being shut out by the overconfident people or the high-status people, you’re not getting the most you can. It’s to your benefit to create an environment based on legitimate expertise ruling the process.

“You can think of it in terms of forecasting or hiring,” Bonner continued. “Mistakes are costly. And any decision you make that’s based less on knowledge and more on poor proxies for knowledge is potentially extremely expensive. The fix for this is cheap: set the tone of the interaction to revolve around facts and not who has the biggest ego.”

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