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Curiouser Science Lessons, No. 2: Problem Solving and Combating Groupthink

Science Lesson 1 : Solving a Problem? Start with Empathy

As a manager, when you see your employee struggling with a challenge, your first instinct may be to dive into the problem to help them fix it. While this may feel intuitive, it may not be the best strategy. 

Neuroscience research has shown that starting from a place of empathy and connection opens up an individual more to new ideas from others, compared to addressing problems head on. Prioritizing listening and understanding also removes emotional roadblocks for employees to navigate the challenges on their own. 

In a study comparing two different approaches to coaching, researchers found that individuals whose coaches first appealed to their clients’ dreams and long term aspirations, before addressing challenges, were more likely to be motivated and cognitively open compared to those whose coaches dove straight in. 

This approach, called “coaching with compassion,” activates areas in the brain associated with motivation, social and emotional connection, and the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. rest and digest). These coachees were more likely to find their coaches to be caring and inspirational, and were more open to new ideas proposed by their coaches. This stood in stark contrast to those who were asked to think about their challenges right away. Their brains showed activation in areas related to self-consciousness and the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. fight or flight).

Managers can approach their relationships with employees in a similar fashion. Starting with empathy strengthens the relationship between manager and employee and increases the employee’s engagement and openness to problem solving, in lieu of first focusing on challenges which may shut them down.


Science Lesson 2: Combating Groupthink

Group decision making can be difficult, especially when trying to form a unanimous decision. 

As a leader, it can be hard to know if team members agree with each other, or are just capitulating to stronger voices in the room and/or those who hold authority. 

This reflects a psychological phenomenon called groupthink. When groups come to agreement prematurely, it’s a sign that they value social cohesion over fully evaluating all the alternatives to make a decision. 

To combat groupthink, there are a few simple steps you as a leader can take:

  • Wait before voicing your opinion. This allows others to fully express what they think, without worrying about conforming to the leader. 
  • Formally assign a devil’s advocate. This formal assignment can make standing up for the minority or dissenting view more comfortable and can encourage members to consider all their options. 
  • Give members time to write down their opinions in advance. By providing the decision making context ahead of time, group members can form their own opinions and perspectives outside of the influence of others and bring them to the conversation. 

This article was featured in the Torch People Development newsletter, Curiouser. Each month, we deliver the latest research, stories, questions, and insights about the art and science of people development to your inbox. Sign-up and join a community of people passionate about growth, learning and leadership.

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