5 Lessons from Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter

WiserHappy talk occurs when group members say that all is going well and likely to go even better—that there is nothing to worry about
…happy talk is a principal target of this book.
The good news is that if discussion is properly structured and if groups adopt the right norms and practices, they can create that culture. The bad news is that in the real world, discussion often leads people in the wrong directions. Many groups fail to correct the mistakes of their members.
Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter

From the Bay of Pigs, to Iraq War decisions, to countless “bad calls” in companies and organizations, groups frequently demonstrate unwise decision-making abilities.facepalm-star-trek-o (1)

The book Wiser is a book to help us be smarter – “wiser” — about our group and team decision-making. And this is something we need to get much better at because we move forward when people work well together. Groups and teams, working well, are at the heart of every success story. And group failure seems to be behind plenty of the “failure stories” around us.


I presented my synopsis of this book at the March First Friday Book Synopsis. My handout included a few pages of quotes and excerpts from the book, some of the key content, and then my lessons and takeaways. This was especially valuable:

Groups run into four independent problems:

#1 — Groups do not merely fail to correct the errors of their members; they actually amplify those errors. 

#2 — Groups fall victim to cascade effects, as group members follow the statements and actions of those who spoke or acted first, even if those statements and actions lead the group in unfortunate, terrible, or tragic directions. 

     • A cascade occurs when people influence one another, so much so that participants ignore their private knowledge and rely instead on the publicly stated judgments of others. Corresponding to our two accounts of social influences, there are two kinds of cascades: informational and reputational. In informational cascades, people silence themselves out of respect for the information conveyed by others. In reputational cascades, people silence themselves too…The central point is that those involved in a cascade do not reveal all that they know. As a result, the group does not obtain important information, and it often decides badly.

#3 — Groups become more polarized, ending up in more extreme positions in line with the predeliberation tendencies of their members—such as when a group of people, inclined toward excessive optimism, becomes still more optimistic as a result of internal discussions. 

#4 — Groups focus on shared information—what everybody knows already—at the expense of unshared information and thus fail to obtain the benefit of critical and perhaps troubling information that one or a few people have. 

giphy (4)

And, here are my five lessons and takeaways from the book:

  1. Groups have a lot of ways they can go wrong.
  2. Peer and boss acceptance and approval are powerful motivators for keeping silent, or speaking “with the 
group,” even if you know better…
  3. Bosses, and true influencers, need to speak last!
  4. It is so easy to do/to get things wrong, and so hard to do/to get things right. (Maybe, getting things wrong comes naturally; you have to really work to get things right).
  5. If you disagree, SPEAK UP with your disagreement! It is imperative that groups have contrarian voices – voices that disagree. Otherwise, groupthink at its worst will win.

giphy (6)If you work with groups (and, you do), I recommend that you look closely at two books: The first is the “group/team classic,” The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. The second is this book, Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie.

Delve into these books, examine your own group practices, and start doing your group work better, more “functionally,” wiser, smarter

For an excellent review of the book Wiser, check out Bob Morris’ review from his web site.  He includes additional “valuable lessons to be learned.”  

Here is the well-known graphic of the “five dysfunctions of a team” from the Lencioni book:

click on image for full view

15minadOur synopses, with our multi-page, comprehensive handouts, and the audio recordings of our presentations, are available at our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com. My synopsis of Wiser will be available on our site soon. 

Randy Mayeux
Contributed by:
Randy Mayeux
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis

4 responses

  1. How can one get involved in the First Friday book club? Sounds like some good readings.

    1. You can register for First Friday Book Synopsis events here: https://ffbsccn.wordpress.com/
      Also, check out previous presentations here: http://15minbb.com/

  2. […] we learned from Randy’s blog on Monday, bad decisions are often made in groups. Herd mentality can ensure that bad decisions have a bigger […]

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