One of keys to good group decision making is conflict. A wealth of research shows that on average better decisions are made when they’re preceded by a vigorous debate. The opposite is also true. When we analyze some of the most disastrous decisions in history like the Shuttle Challenger launch and the Bay of Pigs invasion, we see that a lack of sufficient disagreement was one of the main culprits. Therefore when discussing a decision of significant consequence, one of your most critical duties as a meeting leader is to make sure there’s an adequate amount of conflict.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy. In polite organizational culture, conflict is a dirty word. People hesitate to disagree especially when the person with whom they disagree is their boss. And so if they have a dissenting point of view, they keep it to themselves. At least they try to …
While people can easily keep quiet, they can’t as easily stop their true feelings from leaking out into their nonverbal behavior. They might unintentionally squirm in their chair, roll their eyes, sigh, slightly shake their head, etc.
As a meeting leader you have to notice these nonverbal leaks. And when you do, you need to pounce. “Cindy, I get the feeling you have some concerns with this proposal. Care to elaborate?” By putting people on the spot, you make it more likely they’ll voice their true opinions.
Recognizing nonverbal cues is a skill that we can master if we choose, but we don’t have to. Human beings are generally good enough at picking up on cues by way of their intuition. We just need to pay attention. The only thing that really stands in the way is a simple habit: during the meeting we tend to almost always look at the person who is speaking.
If you’re the meeting leader, you also have to look at attendees who aren’t speaking. Watch closely and you’ll notice nonverbal clues that signal potential dissent. As a result, you’ll have all the sparks necessary to produce the kind of conflict that leads to good decisions. And more importantly, prevents catastrophic ones.