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What the Research Says: Making Better Group Decisions

Friday, October 20, 2017 9:27 AM | Carrie Heider Grant (Administrator)



Carrie Heider Grant

Program Coordinator

Carrie@nonprofnetwork.org





As a capacity building center, Nonprofit Network teaches best practices for nonprofits. Depending on your organization's size, stage, structure, or mission, there may be some variables in how you should operate and govern.  But there are some things that are universal and apply to us all. 


Myself? I'm a data person who values evidence and solid science when it comes to my perspective on the world.  So if I told you that there is a way to improve the quality of conversations and decisions at your board and staff level that may take you out of your comfort zone, andwith enough hard work and planningwill be worth every minute, would you bite?


I recently came across some research from 2008 that looks at the impact of diversity on group functioning—specifically on how a newcomer impacts decision-making and the quality of decisions made by a group.


Here’s a breakdown of how they conducted the research:


50 fraternity and sorority members were placed in same-gender groups of four people each. Every group comprised three members of the same fraternity or sorority (the “oldtimers,”) with a fourth person who was either another member of that same fraternity or sorority (an “in-group”) or was a member of a different one (an “out-group).


The old-timers came together in their individual groups after reading a series of interviews from a murder investigation and discussed which suspect was most likely the murderer. Their task was to discuss the case for 20 minutes and reach consensus on the culprit. After five minutes, the fourth person—either an in-group or an out-group—joined them.



Here are three of the most significant findings from this study and some suggestions for how you might apply them to your own organization:


1) The groups that were all in the same fraternity or sorority (oldtimers + in-group newcomer) were more often wrong in their final decision. While the groups that had an out-group person added to the mix were more frequently correct. Having a homogeneous group was a clear disadvantage.


Study your recruitment strategies at the board and program level.  How are you ensuring that you are bringing people to the table who have different perspectives and experiences?  



2) The out-group newcomer didn’t necessarily bring in new ideas. But rather their presence raised the water level of the quality of the group’s discussion. The presence and influence of an outsider disrupted the cognitive processing and the exchange of information within the group. This study specifically sought to “determine whether the benefits of newcomers only occur when they brought in a new idea.” The results overwhelmingly demonstrated that the advantage of an out-group newcomer was most valuable when they did not bring in a new idea


Examine your culture.  How are you intentionally building relationships in your group that allow for discussion and constructive conflict?  Are you allowing newcomers to influence your discussions? How are you planning crucial conversations to grow your capacity and effectiveness?



3) When the 20-minute discussion ended, the groups were surveyed about their experience. As you might expect, the groups of like-minded people were more comfortable during the process—but they were also more confident that they chose the correct answer. The groups with an out-group newcomer reported being more uncomfortable during the process and less confident in the accuracy of their decision—even though they were right!


Evaluate your effectiveness. Do your perceptions line up with how well your organization is actually performing? Measure the data and identify how to improve as a whole.




Nonprofit Network strives to be a model of inclusion. We engage all people with dignity and respect. We believe that bringing diverse individuals together is essential to effectively address the issues that face current and prospective partners.


We know that conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion can be difficult and uncomfortable.  But we also know that they can be enormously valuable and it is imperative that the nonprofit sector pursues these values.


Looking for more general information? Check out this resource page from the National Council of Nonprofits. 


Nonprofit Network has worked tirelessly for the past three years with the team at Michigan Nonprofit Association to build a comprehensive tool that assesses an organization's practices. This Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Assessment is one the many ways we can walk with you to build your capacity. 




If you're ready to talk about how you can move your organization forward in this critical work, let us know.








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