Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 224
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Bad Advice

Research reveals ways to improve decisions by improving the advice we receive.

Imagine for a moment being a leader of an athletic team in the midst of an important game. As you gather your teammates, plan your next play, and consider their readiness, it may cross your mind that their fit appearances may be deceptive. Concealed injuries, distractions, and inadequate preparation may doom your plans, but you won't know it until you see your efforts crumple in failure, and even then you won't have an explanation. So, when your teammates gather once again, you'll be no closer to the truth about their fitness.

On any given Sunday afternoon, you can turn on your televisions and watch such dramas unfold regardless of the team sport you choose. But concealing weakness and inadequate preparation doesn't limit itself to Sunday afternoons or to athletics. Indeed, John Hollenbeck, from Michigan State University, found it to be the rule in business settings as well, and he explored the problem in an experimental study.

Hollenbeck organized 96 four-person teams and ran them through a decision simulation. The program had 60 separate trials. For each group, three of the four team members were assigned specialized evaluation tasks. The team leaders listened to their advice and then made final decisions.

All of Hollenbeck's trials ended with an outcome, so the teams learned immediately if their decisions were right or wrong, and over the course of the experiment, they got better at the task. Hollenbeck was interested in this process of getting better, and he introduced two factors and studied their effect: 1) increased experience and 2) feedback.

One handicap individuals often bring to meetings is incomplete preparation. Like the athletes mentioned earlier, they aren't ready for the meeting, but they conceal this fact. This lack of preparation reduces the value of their advice because it isn't adequately informed.

For some of the teams, Hollenbeck identified when each member was fully informed and when they weren't. Teams that gained this insight gradually began to address the problem and to solve it before the leaders made their decisions. So their decisions improved in later trials.

One handicap leaders often bring to meetings is a tendency to value too highly the advice they receive. Some people, after all, don't give very good advice.

Again using feedback, Hollenbeck was able to identify the members of the team who gave good advice and those who didn't, and the leaders of these teams gradually learned who to ignore and who to listen to. Once again, the outcome was better decisions.

Curiously, team members who learned that their own advice wasn't very good failed to improve. It seemed that knowing one's advice wasn't good didn't help a person improve it!

The remaining teams in the study didn't receive feedback, but they had double the experiences, twice as many trials. These teams also improved, but their leaders never did improve in their ability to differentially weigh team members' advice. They kept listening to people with poor advice, and it hurt their performance.

Hollenbeck has two tips for us. First, he recommends that people whose advice we seek be asked to make oral reports of their perspectives on the decisions we face to others involved in the decision. This requirement to make a public disclosure at a meeting of one's peers that exposes one's own level of preparation will go a long way to insure that team members are, in fact, well informed. Hollenbeck recommends it as a routine practice.

Second, Hollenbeck recommends that leaders keep a log and record staff members' advice, and then refer back to it when an outcome will allow you to evaluate it. By doing this, you will identify team members with the best advice, and you'll give their views greater weight in future decisions.

Reference: Hollenbeck,John, DAniel Ilgen, Jeffrey LePine, Jason Colquitt, and Jennifer Hedlund (1998) Extending the Multilevel Theory of Team Decision Making: Effects of Feedback and Experience in Hierarchial Teams. Academy of Management Journal, 41(3), 269-282.

© Management Resources

Back to home page