Mind Frames: 10 tips for the Leader to enhance Collective Intelligence and Optimal Team Functioning

This blog refers greatly to the work of Matthew Syed – in his book Rebel Ideas

We view ourselves as rational agents, autonomous authors of our own judgements, but are we really in full control? Our thinking is littered with subconscious biases, our thoughts are primed by cues around us and our view of the world is limited by the frames in which we view it. The following piece will explore debilitative patterns of faulty processing which we treat as gospel yet we are blissfully unaware. Recommendations will be provided for the leader to stop limiting team potential and start utilising cognitive diversity, enhancing collective intelligence and augmenting innovation.

The mere idea that our thoughts and actions are infiltrated by external cues operating at a subconscious level is rather alarming and somewhat unbelievable, as they do not correspond with subjective experience. But, we have been guided into patterns of thinking based on our background, experiences and beliefs. We interpret situations through customised frames that are rarely departed from yet manipulate our perceptions of the world around us.

Similarity breeds connection. We are attracted to people who look, think and act like we do. This notion is called homophily and homophily is all around us. Socially it makes sense. It is evident in our social1, romantic2 and work3 relationships.

The problem? Homophily inhibits diverse thinking

Homophily limits people’s social worlds and shapes attitudes based on the information we receive and the interactions we have. Surrounding ourselves with people who think and behave like us confirms rather than tests our core beliefs. It cushions our comfort zones meaning our views are rarely challenged, creating an echo chamber of beliefs that are reinforced by significant others. This distorts our independent reality to appear as more of a social norm, yet we are unaware of the impact these homogenous affiliations have on shaping our attitudes and actions. The result is perspective blindness4 – we are unaware of alternative perceptions that may be very different to the frames of reference that we place on situations. The problem is that we are not aware of the frames in which we view the world. By surrounding ourselves with similar people we exacerbate the issue as they mirror our perspectives making us blind to our blind spots.

Perspective blindness is perfectly highlighted in an experiment which shows how different backgrounds guide us into different perceptions of the same scenario. Social psychologists5 showed an underwater scene to two groups – one from America, one from Japan. Although they saw identical images, they reported very different things. America is an individualist society which places an emphasis on objects, and the Americans talked about the fish in the images. Japan however, is an interdependent society placing emphasis on context, displayed through them reporting the background scenario in which the fish were swimming. When the fish were placed in a different context, the Japanese struggled to recognise the fish yet the Americans were oblivious to the contextual change. The study highlights how upbringing dictates your perception. While no group was wrong in their responses, they were blind to other perspectives beyond their frame of reference.

Homophily is not all bad. It creates social connections and is advantageous for information sharing6. The issue is that it inhibits creativity. Homophily leads to knowledge clustering and assimilation of thoughts and ideas due to applying analogous frames of reference to a given situation. Homophily is negatively associated with performance for those working in the upper echelons of hierarchy6, and this is a particular issue as those in a higher position are more likely to require access to diverse information7. With all this said, it is no wonder creative employees are more likely to experience social alienation8.

Cognitive Diversity

The opposite to homophily is cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity, put simply, is thinking differently. It is individual “differences in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles”4. It allows unique, unparalleled perspectives that frame situations outside conformity, igniting creativity and innovation. Diversity beyond demographics. The prevalence of simple, linear problems is dissipating4 and we are now entering a time where complex problems faced in high performing teams require multiple frames from multiple sources to drive innovative solutions.

The effects of cognitive diversity are very real. Over half (55%) of America’s ‘billion-dollar start-ups’ have an immigrant founder9. Almost half (45%) of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, amassing a total of $16.1 trillion revenue in 201810… Amazon, Apple and Tesla to name a few. This is not to say immigrants are of higher intelligence or are more creative, but to show that bringing fresh perspectives and applying new frames of reference to a situation or problem is advantageous. Fusing together multiple cognitively diverse approaches facilitates cutting edge thinking.

Diverse teams are the epitome of high performance. After their miraculous world cup win, England cricket captain Eoin Morgan celebrated the broad range of diversity within the team11. Diversity did not win us the world cup alone, but diverse perspectives bringing different insights to the game could have been a defining factor for the narrow margin of victory.

Success stories involving cognitive diversity highlight its importance but not quite to the extent of one of the worst terrorist disasters of recent times – 9/114. Those recruiting for the CIA employed the very best following a rigorous process, however, they recruited ‘white, mostly Anglo-saxon; middle and upper class’ with ‘few non-caucasians’, ‘few women’, and ‘few ethnics’12. Best individually? Perhaps. An effective team? Absolutely not. They lacked diversity, insight and understanding missing out on clues that could have infiltrated the plan4. It is like having a football team with 11 centre midfielders. They may be the best in what they do but versatility is important.  

Collective Intelligence

Cognitive diversity is essential for increasing collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is simply the combined intelligence of a group of individuals. Individual intelligence is hailed above all else, but it is also limited. However intelligent one person may be, multiple individuals who assess and approach a situation in cognitively diverse ways far exceed individual capabilities. The effects of homophily and cognitive diversity on collective intelligence can be best represented visually. The following has been adapted from Matthew Syed’s Rebel ideas4. Frames represent an individual’s intelligence and perspective. The wall represents the problem space:

Homophily + Collective Intelligence

Similar frames represent individuals of similarity. The frames have often been shaped the same as a result of being developed by the same artist with the same tools and paint. Some of the frames overlap, cluster and group together. You wouldn’t use the same frame if you want a diverse, original wall. Just like you wouldn’t want a workforce who only tackle one specific area of the problem and cluster all their knowledge and expression, leaving other areas of the wall bare, exposed and neglected.

Cognitive diversity + Collective Intelligence

The frames are diverse and original. They have been sculpted and worked by different artists representing different cultures, beliefs, backgrounds and perspectives. Some frames may be bigger than others and cover more of the problem area, but what they all do is contribute to collective intelligence from their own niche. Individually these frames may be no more impressive than the overlapping homophilic frames. But, what they do is cover more of the problem space collectively. Different frames interpret the problem in different ways, driving diverse thinking.

Leadership styles

Collective intelligence and diverse thinking can be enhanced or diminished depending on leadership styles. There are two common leadership styles often unknowingly adopted by the user – Dominance and Prestige13. The following image discerns the leadership styles based on how they gain respect, personality traits and their reactions to higher ups13,4.

Dominance dynamics

Dominance dynamics replicates conditions of homophily. Our frames are unknowingly sabotaged by the original frame the dominant leader places on a scenario. We are primed into framing the situation the same way the leader does, resulting in a narrowed overall perspective and an information cascade14. Anchoring has been observed in numbers15.The original guess acts as a metaphorical anchor whereby subsequent attempts fall close to. This also occurs with thoughts and ideas. A leader imposing their opinion on a situation causes an anchoring of creative insight which limits ideas whereby future frames rarely diverge.

This very notion alongside the ‘uneven communication problem’ is the reason why meetings are so ineffective16. The uneven communication problem does what it says on the tin – dominant leaders/sub-leaders/personalities end up contributing a disproportionate amount of input, yet are unaware of the conversational imbalance, an issue that gets progressively worse as the group size increases16.

This imbalance is further exacerbated during times of uncertainty. As humans, we dislike the feeling that we lack control, so we place our faith in a dominant character. This is called compensatory control17 and often occurs in organisations when they experience problems. A counter-productive paradox is created whereby teams morph to the outlook of one individual, inhibiting viable solutions to the problem faced in a time where maximising collective intelligence is crucial. This phenomenon can explain why people turn to religion during ambiguous times18.

Intuition + Dominant leadership

Leaders pride themselves on their intuition. They value it as a reason for getting them to the top. Dominant leaders ignore stats and impose their own decisions over reasonable data. Basic algorithms have been shown to outperform expert clinical judgements about 60% of the time with the other comparisons scoring a draw and no exception convincingly documented19. This is because we become stuck perceiving situations through the frames we are used to applying. Computers and algorithms aren’t prone to this subconscious human error. Intuitions are nothing more than valid cues picked up and pieced together without reflective thought. Trust logic, not emotion. I will now ask you to partake in the following question:

The Linda Problem

‘Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations’

Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller

b) Linda is a bank teller and feminist

If you voted b then you are wrong, but you are not alone. 85-90% of people choose option b contrary to logic20. The following Venn diagram highlights the faulty rationale:

This is called a conjunction fallacy – judging two events to be more probable than one. This experiment eloquently highlights how our intuitions pick up on cues which are valued over statistical probability. By intertwining a problem with an opinionated narrative, the dominant leader can manipulate his/her team into a way of perceiving the situation, even if it is highly irrational.

Cognitive diversity + Collective intelligence

Fusing together cognitively diverse perspectives facilitates recombination of innovative ideas. Recombination is simply fusing together two ideas, otherwise called ‘idea sex’21. Frames start connecting allowing new ideas and perspectives that wouldn’t have been accessed individually, creating an information spill over4. Ultimately, ideas inspire new ideas. More areas of the problem space are tackled as a result of an effective team rife with diverse thoughts. But, it is essential to be open to new ideas. 60 years ago, fusing together a suit case with wheels was fiercely rejected4. Now? I certainly wouldn’t want to lug a handheld suitcase through Luton airport.  

So, how can we enhance collective intelligence and augment innovation?

Techniques

Adopt a prestige leadership style

Dominant leadership is less of a stable personality trait and more of a leadership technique. Dominance serves its function when a plan needs implementing4, but it limits and anchors expression. Adopting a prestige leadership style will encourage diverse thinking, increase collective intelligence and ignite more ideas.

Psychological safety

To facilitate new ideas and diverse thinking it is key to create a psychologically safe environment. One that is rife with mockery and blame will cause individuals to suppress ideas. Psychologically safe environments engender employee involvement in creative work23 and moderate the effects of status22. To create a psychologically safe environment, the leader should exhibit openness and accessibility in their interactions whilst avoiding a culture of blame and ridicule22.

Encourage diversity

Encourage thinking differently. Encourage your workforce to integrate their personal skills into their job. In a Google experiment, psychologists delivered a workshop encouraging employees to shape their work around their personal interests and skills. The result? Those who attended the workshop were happier and performed better24. Value individual difference and it will be advantageous for both parties.

Priming

Words prime thoughts and thoughts prime behaviours. Experiments have shown that words associated with old people resulted in slower walking speeds (ideomotor effect25) and the content of a screensaver influenced task perseverance on a difficult problem26. Behaviours are influenced without conscious knowledge. Use priming to your advantage. If you want your team to be creative, clean up your language. Use trigger words that are not dominant and limiting but inspiring and expansive. If you want behavioural change, use posters, images and screensavers around your workspace to evoke subconscious change.

Feedback

Be objective in your feedback. A good decision may be influenced by external factors such as luck, so it is important to separate the process from the outcome. Decisions makers who have decisions scrutinised will be reluctant to take risks in the future. The idea the future is unpredictable is undermined by the ease with which we can explain the past19. This is called a hindsight bias27 and this can be unkind to decision makers when previous mistakes seem so obvious after they unfold. Value mistakes and learn from them rather than placing individual blame and thwarting psychological safety.

Golden silence

This is a technique used by Amazon in which an objective memo is read out to the group instead of a PowerPoint presentation. Rather than an immediate, domineering, intuitive response it is followed by a 30-minute silence28. It allows individuals time to reflect and negates the impact of a leader framing the situation in a limited way and anchoring creative insight. It avoids individuals’ thoughts being subconsciously supressed allowing them to reach their own conclusions, enhancing diverse thinking.  

Brain writing

Like brain storming, but better. This technique involves writing your ideas on a card and sticking them to the wall. This can take place during the golden silence, but it is crucial the ideas stay anonymous as it nullifies two debilitative psychological phenomena. By separating the idea from the status, you avoid the HIPPO effect29 – highest paid person’s opinion, which is often seen as a better idea due to the position the individual holds. This is closely linked to the next phenomenon – the Halo effect30. Positive frames you place on an individual from previous encounters influences your perception of their subsequent actions. Depersonalising decision-making separates ideas from cognitive biases reifying the quality of creative insights.

Assumption reversal

If you want to innovate, think outside the parameters of convention. Flip assumptions on their head. Take the most basic general traditions of your intended idea and simply reverse them. For example, a company owns their products and services. Reverse this. Imagine the world’s largest taxi company31 not owning any cars, the world’s largest social media platform32 not creating any content and the world’s largest accommodation booking site33 not owning any rooms. Well, they don’t, and Uber, Facebook and Airbnb are doing okay for themselves. 

Reframing

We all create frames to organise, interpret and connect a vast amount of information, “they’re cognitive shortcuts that help us make sense of complex situations”35. The problem is that our perceptions of the world are misinterpreted as closer to reality, than in reality. Applying singular frames and labels is dangerous as they limit situations, misconstrue people and wrongly categorise problems. Opposite to the Halo effect31 is the fundamental attribution error36 – framing an individual based on a single isolated error that you have generalised as a longstanding trait. Merely being aware of how you frame people, problems and scenarios is already a positive step. If your attempts to solve a problem are not working, then change the frame in which you view it.

Pre-mortem

This should take place when a decision has been reached. Imagine you have gone ahead with the decision, you are a year into the future and the plan has failed. Similar to the brain writing procedure and without prior input, you should individually write why it went wrong. This anonymously highlights weaknesses that people may have been afraid to say aloud, invalidating future “knew it all along” claims (hindsight bias28).

The beauty of all of this is that it is transferable. It can apply to a variety of teams across multiple industries. By the leader making minor changes to the way they operate, they open up unbounded opportunity for their team to thrive. Humans like familiarity. This is well documented. But humans also like success. So which one will you choose?

References

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