Risky Shift: Why?

I have written before (Groupthink, Abilene and Risky Shift and Neuroscience of Risky Shift) about Risky Shift. This is a phenomenon every project or change manager needs to be aware of. In short, it is the tendency to for groups to make decisions that have a more extreme risk profile (or more cautious) than any of the members of the group would individually have subscribed to. But why does it happen?

Researchers have proposed a number of theories…

A social psychology of group processes for decision-making

Collins, Barry E.; Guetzkow, Harold Steere.
Wiley, 1964

The authors suggest that a power differential allows higher power group members who favour a more extreme position to persuade other group members to support that position.

Diffusion of responsibility and level of risk taking in groups

Wallach, Michael A.; Kogan, Nathan; Bem, Daryl J.
The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 68(3), Mar 1964, 263-274.

The authors suggest that in a group, the sense of shared responsibility leaves individuals feeling that they themselves are committing to a lesser share of risk, reducing their level of concern about the implications of the risk.

Social Psychology

Brown, Roger.
New York: Free Press, 1965.

In this classic (and dense) textbook, the author puts forward his theory that in risk valuing cultures like that in the US, where he worked, group members are drawn towards higher risk to maintain their sense of status in the group. This would suggest that, in systemically risk averse cultures, caution would be socially valued leading to cautious shift.

Familiarization, group discussion, and risk taking

Bateson, Nicholas
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1966

This author details experimental evidence leading to the hypothesis that it the discussion process that matters – as group members become more familiar with a proposal, the level of risk seems to diminish: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ maybe?

The ‘so what?’

  1. Facilitate discussions to minimise power differentials and minimise the impacts of any that remain.
  2. Be clear with group members that they are jointly and severally (that is, individually) responsible for any decision the group makes.
  3. Disentangle status, value and risk. Set the culture around contribution, value and process. Your personal value is linked to your contribution to a robust process.
  4. Facilitate an objective risk assessment of each proposal.



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