When small groups of workers meet to make decisions, all of them want the chance to share their opinions, and that's no bad thing, says Randall Peterson, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.
But letting group members have unlimited "air time" can backfire, according to Peterson's new study, "Can You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? The Limits of Voice for Improving Satisfaction with Leaders," published in the March 1999 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The study outlines ways that all groups, from business meetings to family dinner-table conferences, can function more efficiently. Peterson's research aimed to identify some situations in which small group "free speech" is best reined in by leaders.
"It is always useful to get everyone's point of view on the table," Peterson said. But while consensus decision making results in greater satisfaction and acceptance among group members, it doesn't work when members have fundamental differences. "At some point the leader needs to decide whether to push the group to a consensus or not," he said. "When people fundamentally disagree, more and more talking doesn't get you anywhere."
Therein lies the art of leadership, Peterson said. When trying to decide if a consensus is possible when there is strong disagreement in a group, Peterson suggests looking at some nonverbal cues, such as arm crossing, ignoring the person in disagreement or actually turning away.
This is the point when the leader needs to step in and put an end to the "air time," he said. This is important because if the group leader does not intervene, he or she will bear the brunt of the group's displeasure. "People expect the leader to cut that person off and move on," he said. At this point, consensus may not be possible, and the majority may have to rule.
While it is the responsibility of the group leader to cut the person off who is dominating the discussion, the leader must do this in a tactful way. "People are looking for an acknowledgement that they have a valid point of view," he said. "The leader must acknowledge the reasonableness of his or her position and then move on."