The importance of ground rules – bias and better groups

I’ve always found the discussion about Ground Rules in groups frustrating. I think they are important and/but I’ve shared that sense of “come on let’s get on with the real work” that I have seen in others. But I had a bit of an ah-ha moment today when I was re-reading the Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schwarz and thinking about some of the insights from Daniel Kahneman and Matt Lierberman around bias. I think they are connected. They help explain how important ground rules can be, why we don’t always recognise that, and what we can do about it.

Roger Schwarz makes a difference between behavioural and procedural ground rules that govern how groups can work. He suggests that there are specific behaviours that improve a group’s process. These behaviours turn an abstract set of core values (valid information; free and informed choice; internal commitment; compassion) into guidelines for how the group should work together. These “ground rules” are:

  1. Test assumptions and inferences
  2. Share all relevant information
  3. Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  4. Explain your reasoning and intent
  5. Focus on interests, not positions
  6. Combine advocacy and inquiry
  7. Jointly design steps and ways to test disagreements
  8. Discuss undiscussable issues
  9. Use a decision-making rule that generates the level of commitment needed.

These rules may help mitigate our unconscious biases. Matt Lieberman, David Rock and Christine Cox suggested a model to categorize biases into COST:

  • Corner-cutting: mental shortcuts that help us make quick decisions; like making decisions based on information that comes to mind most quickly, or only accepting data that confirms our preconceptions
  • Objectivism: the belief that our perceptions, beliefs and understanding are true while others are wrong; like thinking that because they know less than us their perspective has less value, or thinking “I knew that all along” after the event (the 2015 election bias!?)
  • Self-protection: our motivation to feel good about ourselves and our groups; like accepting or rejecting what’s being said on who is saying it not what they say or believing our success is based on character while others is based on luck
  • Time and money: our tendency to value what is easy to reach, and place more emphasis on threats vs. rewards: like valuing smaller short-term rewards against longer-term more valuable rewards, or over valuing sunk costs

I can appreciate that some of the ground rules mitigate against some of the biases. Testing assumptions, sharing information and discussing the discussable helps reduce corner cutting; defining terms and inquiring properly reduces our tendency to lack objectivity, and so on.

The insight for me was that people in groups are biased whether we like it or not and ground rules are a choice we have as a group to increase our awareness of that risk and try to minimize it.

The Ground Rules then become a need not a nice to have and the challenge for the facilitator and the group is how to engage in this discussion in a way that elicits meaningful and helpful ground rules – especially if the group may not be aware of the need because bias is unconscious!

The lesson for me is to come up with approaches to generate more meaningful discussions around ground rules based not just on procedural stuff (keep to time, phones off, etc) but on those things that that can make an essential difference to the way the group works perhaps by providing input on bias and/or using more visual and imaginative ways to generate the list of rules (e.g. remember back to the group best at managing conflict or generating innovative approaches – what did they do?)

Sources: Roger Schwarz – The Skilled Facilitator Approach, Jossey-Bass, 2002; Matthew Lierberman, David Rock and Christine Cox – Breaking Bias, Neuroleadership Journal 2014


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