Collective intelligence or collective stupidity?

We often talk about collective intelligence, or the way we can take advantage of each contributor’s knowledge in order to find solutions that we would be unable to find individually.

But we also talk about the dangers of a crowd. We see people in a group behaving in a way that contradicts how they would usually behave, in opposition to their values.

How come the group sometimes brings out the best in us and in other cases reveals our worst instincts?

Let’s start with this Native American story. An old man tells his grandson that we each have two wolves fighting within us. The first wolf is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with everyone around him. But the second wolf is full of hatred. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.

The grandson stares at his grandfather for a long time before asking, “Which one is going to win, Grandpa?”

The old man smiles and simply answers, “The one I feed.”

So how can we make the enthusiastic, listening, patient, humble and committed wolf win in a group situation? The answer is simple: it’s the framework that shapes the group. If the framework is well defined, with rules that protect people, we can hope to bring out the best in the group. On the other hand, if the framework favours egocentrism, the worst can happen.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of limiting frameworks. In a crowd, because of its anonymity, individuals lose their sense of self and their personal responsibility. If one person commits an unsociable act, other people will feel authorized, or even encouraged, to follow suit and the crowd movement can lead to collective behaviours that are sometimes completely irrational.

Another framework, which may be more familiar to us: a meeting. If the framework favours the expression of the person that speaks the loudest and stigmatises mistakes, we will only hear one voice. Many people, who would have things to say, will remain silent because of the fear of saying something wrong and having a finger pointed at them.

The role of a facilitator, a trainer or a manager is to make sure that the framework is well defined, that it’s protective and enticing, and that it will be respected. Let’s look at a few examples: when brainstorming, one of the most important rules in the phase of producing ideas is that “we accept all ideas, we don’t judge”. Even if these ideas are not used at the end, they might have allowed us to generate new ideas, or opened new pathways.

Another example: in holocracy (a mode of shared governance), everyone can suggest ideas. We talk, exchange, and at the end, one person is chosen, on behalf of the group, to formulate a proposition. At this moment, the person is not defending their own idea, but imagining the idea that best corresponds to the exchanges that took place. There is no space for ego, we vote for an idea and not for a person.

The frameworks I have just talked about come from years of experience and have been clearly defined. The fact that a framework is explicit helps to more easily ensure its implementation. On the contrary, unfavourable frameworks are often informal, based on ignorance or power games.

Next time you are in a group, if nothing interesting comes out of your exchanges, instead of saying that the people in the group are not performing, ask yourself what kind of framework (formal or informal) is in place and whether it is suited to the situation.

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About the author

Guillaume Soto

Guillaume Soto is passionate about entrepreneurship, coaching and management. After several years working as a micro-electronics engineer for Philips Semiconductor, ST Microelectronics and a start-up called Stepmind, he went into development assistance – managing a local economic development project in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2008 to 2009, and an economic recovery project in Haiti with Première Urgence-Aide Médicale Internationale after the earthquake of 2010.

Having spent 10 years working as an engineer and project manager in different parts of the world, he settled in Yaoundé in Cameroun in 2012, where he established the company Shauri Conseil & Coaching (Shauri-CC).

Shauri-CC provides specialist support for individuals and businesses: offering training on leadership, time and priority management, team building sessions and individual coaching to organisations and managers who wish to improve their performance and effectiveness at work. Most of its clients are based in Central Africa.