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Family Meetings: The Dangers of False Consensus

Several years ago, a social psychologist. Solomon Asch, performed a famous group pressure experiment in which an individual is asked which of two of four lines were of equal length. Other group members, coached in advance, unanimously picked a clearly unequal line. The tension mounted in the room because the uncoached subject wanted to be both accepted by the group and confirmed that he was right, as he was certain he was. From this experiment, Asch asked the question:

Under what conditions would people agree to see the same thing and produce false consensus, or in today's world, experience 'group think'?

  • He concluded and history has confirmed that the following conditions create a false agreement, groupthink, a syndrome so dangerous that it has been implicated by the 911 commission's findings of failure in all branches of the government to challenge conclusions about safety. And, as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, when writing about the Bay of Pigs fiasco, "Our meeting took place in a curious atmosphere of assumed consensus." The danger of group think is that in doesn't just censor dissent but that it makes dissent improbable. People see what they want to see, are not allowed to differ with the leaders and, because agreement is forced and false, do not follow through with the plans when:

  • No chance for dialogue; you look, listen, then decide
  • You can only look and listen; there is no discussion
  • You judge only on one variable, and over-simplified reality
  • No complex ideas, views or options are involved.

Asch's conclusions offer enduring lessons for families in business that regularly are forced to make critical and complex decisions affecting the business, the family and the stakeholders. In order to make these decisions wisely and strategically, I find that it helps to use the following road map:

  • Create an agenda
  • Set the timetable beginning and ending time, and stick to it
  • Always have ground rules for discussion, 'rules of engagement'-for example, only one person speaks at a time, make "I" statements (as in "I think that we should have a committee to create an employment plan for the next generation") not you statements (as in "You can't mean that? You have always been afraid of policies.)
  • Brainstorm ideas; encourage differing ideas
  • Narrow down solutions
  • Consider the pros and cons for the family and the business
  • Arrive at a solution and follow-through

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