Backchannelling leads to better decision-making: Research
The powerful are less dependent on others to achieve their objectives. Henceforth, they focus their attention on themselves, states the “Situated focus theory of power (Guinote, 2007, 2010)”. Ana Guinote also theorizes that the powerless are motivated to pay attention to external stimuli because they are dependent on others for fulfilling their goals and objectives. If the powerful feel less powerful, they will take others opinion much more seriously.
Understand the situated focus theory of power in the context of a meeting of company’s top executives and project team members of a startup. The top executives, who call the shots on the company’s product portfolio and are the final decision-makers on those products, may not be motivated to listen to the project team members – this is if the former have walked into the meeting with a premeditated mindset and believe they have an answer to the problem statement. The top executive, following the situated theory of power, will focus on her answer and not the answers which are bipolar to hers, but very viable solutions. She may hear the minority opinions but is unlikely to integrate them in practice – as the situated focus theory establishes.
“How communication channels motivate majorities to integrate minority opinions.”: The question which the researchers seek to answer
A body of research by academic researchers such as Mesmer-Magnus, DeChurch, Jimenez-Rodriguez, Wildman, & Shuffler (2011); and Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire (1986) collectively argues that stereotyping of minorities reduces, and their opinions are heard more in a virtual environment – for a virtual environment eliminates vocal and visual cues making the minority status less salient. However, that doesn’t mean that the majority will integrate minority opinion (even if they hear it now) because they aren’t motivated to do so; this is argued by another body of research. The communication environment may entice minorities to voice their opinions, but it doesn’t mean it will be considered.
Backchannelling, as a practice, or even the possibility of backchannelling in meetings, can turn this upside down. A study, Secret conversation opportunities facilitate minority influence in virtual groups: The influence on majority power, information processing, and decision quality by management researchers at INSEAD, Columbia Business School, and Singapore Management University argues that the possibility of existence of backchannels in an organization changes the power dynamics between the majority-opinion holders and minority-opinion holders. What backchannelling does is, it rescales the balance of power to an extent, and this intuition of limited power makes the majority-opinion holders to integrate minority views.
What is backchannelling? - Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside the primary group activity or live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of linguistics to describe listeners' behaviours during verbal communication. Source: Wikipedia
The researchers made two hypotheses after a comprehensive literature review and studying two significant bodies of research. In the pursuit of finding the answer to this ever important and relevant question, “How communication channels motivate majorities to integrate minority opinions”, they hypothesised:
- The presence of secret conversation opportunities (a) increases majority opinion holders’ motivation to process dissent after being exposed to unique minority information because (b) this makes the majority feel less powerful.
- The presence of secret conversation opportunities (a) facilitates increased group decision quality because (b) it motivates majority opinion holders to process unique information offered by the minority more deeply.
The researchers did controlled experiments to study the behaviour of participants (comprised of undergraduate students for 3 experiments, and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk employees for 1 of the experiment). The researchers used variations of an experiment where the participants were given the role of a board member of an investment company and were given a decision-making task of choosing between two companies. The participants were handed the detailed analyst reports of both the companies and had to first decide individually which company they would invest in; the discussion happened between all the members following the decision-making. The reports were articulated such that Company B would be the preferred choice of the majority. The team discussions happened in simulated chat groups and two scenarios were tested –
- One where there was only one chat window and the subject knew there was no other avenue available to secretly have a discussion;
- The other where there were two chat windows – one where the messages are shared with the complete group, and second chat window where you can send messages to selective members of the group.
The researchers identified a clear circumstance under which majorities are motivated to process dissenting minority viewpoints – “when unique information accompanies the minority viewpoint and there are secret conversation opportunities available”
What this research found in all the four experiments to test hypothesis 1(a), 1(b), 2(a), and 2(b), was all true to their assumption. Analysis revealed that the curiosity of the majority to learn about the unique information provided by minority opinion holders was more when a backchannel was available and the majority was aware of it. The analysis also found that it wasn’t the benefits of diversity motivating majority opinion holders to process minority’s unique information; instead it was the feeling of relinquished power. The biggest revelation of the study was the increased likelihood of a better quality discussion when secret conversation opportunities are available.
What this research very intriguingly highlights is that the concentration of power in the hands of the majority can submerge a distinct minority opinion, and it may have a ripple effect on distorting the psychological safety of the minority opinion holders. Virtual discussions with avenues of private secret conversations (luckily there are aplenty) can lead to better decision-making. Companies may like to integrate this finding with how they conduct meetings, and measure the changes to decision-making quality. They could do a pilot with a few meetings, and use the same methodology the researchers used to measure decision-making quality.
This research can also be extended to other realms of talent management, beyond decision-making. Scenarios can be created where the powerful do not feel entirely in control (like in a meeting with avenues for backchannelling) and that relinquishing of power motivates them to be better team players.
As to the potent question that the researchers asked in this study, “How communication channels motivate majorities to integrate minority opinions”. The answer lies in the findings of this study – the circumstance under which majorities are motivated to process dissenting minority viewpoints – “when unique information accompanies the minority viewpoint and there are secret conversation opportunities available.”