I was giving a talk recently about some of my work on transactive memory systems (TMS). TMS is a psychological concept (though now most heavily researched in management-related areas) that proposes that individuals begin relying on one another for knowledge stores over time. I’ve spoken about this concept a few times in the past if you want to scroll back in the blog. Anyway, in teams research, we talk about TMS as a concept that helps explain why groups perform better over time (Moreland, 1999). Typically, as individuals work together, each member will demonstrate a predisposition based on training, experience, etc. for some area of work. Other members will recognize a member’s ability and will defer to that member to carry out work in that area. This ‘implicit coordination’ and ability to develop specialization in their preferred area, is what lead’s to performance improvement in teams.
As I was giving the talk, one of the faculty asked me about the relationship between TMS and ‘groupthink’. ‘Groupthink’ is a popular psychological idea that attempts to explain why teams composed of the best members sometimes make bad decisions. Some of the famous examples are the Bay of Pigs Disaster or the Challenger explosion. In those cases, there were team members who had a suspicion that the wrong decision was being made, but they were unwilling to share their information for fear that they would be criticized. The concept is popular and frequently taught in management classes, but is not particularly heavily researched. From my understanding, groupthink is the outcome of an environment that is not psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999). If it is not part of the culture to be open and respectful of other’s critiques, then it may be quite easy to keep your thoughts to yourselves.
So, what then of the relationship of TMS and groupthink within a team? TMS is in part about trusting experts’ opinions and deferring decision making based on background knowledge. It is therefore fundamentally about members within the team having more autonomy in their areas of work and interfering less in areas outside of their expertise. If a decision is being made about an option that is not as related to my expertise, will I be willing to share my thoughts? Obviously, we hope that there is effective leadership within the team that may mitigate some of these issues. I think it would be plausible, however if members have divided their expertise up, that team members may not feel comfortable making comments on other’s areas of expertise. Most of the time, I am not assessing team’s decision-making abilities in my work so I don’t have that first hand experience.
A friend of mine, Julija Mell, ran a decision-making experiment with some colleagues in 2014, looking at a variety of characteristics related to TMS and their effect on good decisions being made within a team. Julija found that if information about who knows what was distributed in such a way to make it easier to reveal said information (and thus jump-start TMS) that this led to groups retrieving each other’s information more. Moreover, members were more likely to engage and discuss their perspectives the more they retrieved other’s knowledge (called information elaboration in the paper). This process led to more effective decisions being made. So, this study would suggest that maybe, when a group has a well-functioning TMS, they use that information to have a conversation about the best decision to make, using the knowledge of who knows what to make sure the best information is used in that assessment.
I think that there should probably be some more investigation into whether TMS could lead to decision complacency within teams, but it looks like the processes that keep a TMS updated, may also serve to mitigate possible negative effects of groupthink. It could be that these processes don’t work as well in teams that have been together a long time, but that is an empirical question. Time to get to work I suppose!
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Mell, J. N., Van Knippenberg, D., & Van Ginkel, W. P. (2014). The catalyst effect: The impact of transactive memory system structure on team performance. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1154-1173.
Moreland, R. L. (1999). Transactive memory: Learning who knows what in work groups and organizations. In L. L. Thompson, J. M. Levine, & D. M. Messick (Eds.), Shared cognition in organizations: The management of knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.