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How Assumptions of Consensus Undermine Decision Making

Managers don't need to be told that globalization is accelerating, that new technologies are proliferating or that change is the only constant. Nor do they need anyone to point out how difficult it is for organizations to keep adapting to all the change. They have lived that story. What they may not realize, however, is the extent to which they may be the stumbling blocks to their organizations' transformation and growth. That is because the personal assumptions that undermine their decision making are often quite unconscious.

Recent research shows that despite the genuineness and dedication of executives' attempts to manage change, "social projection," or the "false-consensus effect," keeps getting in the way. Projection involves making intuitive judgments about other people and places on the basis of one's own beliefs, knowledge and experience rather than on anything objective about the particular people or places. It leads to overestimating consensus, undervaluing objective assessments or different views, turning away constructive feedback and taking on new ventures without reaching consensus -- a dangerous scenario.

Authors Robert L. Cross, a lecturer in the organizational behavior department at Boston University and a research fellow at IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Susan E. Brodt, a professor of management at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, use industry examples to support their concrete advice on how to tackle the detrimental effects of projection. They suggest techniques such as creating and maintaining an individual's awareness of projection, practicing looking at ideas from a different perspective, encouraging conflict, and disentangling self-worth from consensus. Because well-honed intuitive judgment is an executive necessity, no manager should let it fall prey to projection. After managers have learned to identify that invisible barrier, they can gain insight into the workings of their own minds and make sense of others' actions. Having done so, they will be able to move ahead in implementing change while managing organizations that can excel in the global arena.

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