100 Things You Should Know About People: #64 — Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality

Picture of Meeting In the last blog post I talked about how groups end up making faulty decisions. How many times have you been part of a group discussion and decision-making process and there is one person who is dominating the conversation and the decision. Just because decisions are made in a group setting doesn’t mean that the entire group really made the decision. Many people give up in the presence of one or more dominant group members, and may not speak up at all.

Why does the leader become the leader? — Anderson and Kilduff (2009) researched group decision-making. They formed groups of four students each and had them solve math problems from the GMAT (a standardized test for admission to graduate business school programs).

Everyone agrees who the leader is – During the problem solving session the researchers videotaped the group conversations and reviewed them later to decide who was the leader of each group. They had multiple sets of observers view the videos to see if there was consensus about who the leaders were. They also asked the people in the groups who they thought was the leader of their group. Everyone agreed on who the leader was in each group.  Before the groups started, everyone filled out a questionnaire to measure level of dominance. As you might imagine, the leaders had all scored high on the dominance measure. But that still doesn’t say how they became leaders. Were they the people with the best math SAT scores? (No). Did they bully everyone else into letting them be the leader? (No).

The leaders speak first – For 94% of the problems the group’s final answer was the first answer that was proposed, and the people with the dominant personalities were the ones that spoke up first.

The dangers of focus groups – This is one reason why I am skeptical about focus groups for user research (as opposed to one-on-one interviews or user testing).

What do you think? Do you use focus groups?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Anderson, Cameron & Kilduff, G. (2009). Why do dominant personalities attain influence in face-to-face groups? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 491-503.

Posted in decision-making, psychology, research Tagged with: ,
5 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #64 — Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality
  1. Gordon Baxter says:

    Focus groups can work, but you need good, experienced moderators who make sure that one person is not allowed to dominate discussions, and that everyone gets a chance to have their say.

  2. Hi Susan, I’ve seen this happen on several occasions. No, I don’t use or recommend focus groups very often – both because of this phenomenon, and also because people tend to tell you what they’d like to believe about themselves, rather than what is really true (e.g. in focus groups, parents say that they let their kids watch one hour of TV per day, but the set-top boxes say that it’s really six hours; in focus groups).

  3. Hi Susan,

    I do not do a traditional focus group, but I do perform collaborative sketching with groups. I do facilitate these sessions. I do not participate in group decisions (ie persuading people towards a decision). I do lead these groups by establishing a communication protocol using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. And, i write some general rules for convergent and divergent thinking.

    When we unveil our designs to a group of executives, we do sometimes see Executive “swoop and poops” alot. The executives do try to dominant the meeting by telling the design team what is wrong with the designs. I have learned to fight this tendency of executive by asking them to tell us two positive things about the design before the they launch into their criticisms.

    Anyway, I use groups, but not a traditional focus group

  4. I do use focus groups but not for evaluating the website or application.

    I use it more as a kind of kickoff to gain insights very fast, to detect the common language and to discover problems. I use them sometimes at the start of a project, but don’t use them later.

    I’m aware about the drawbacks of focus meetings, but if you prepare yourself well then it’s a good tool. The worth of a focus meeting is correlated with the capabilities of the forum moderator.

    The superiors and bosses of a user group aren’t invited at all and natural dominant people will be chained a little. It’s key that all people can say what they think and are not dominated by one person.

    However I would never use a focus group as the only input tool. Interviews and observations have to be carried out too.

  5. Dominants personalities do have a huge influence not only during the focus group but also afterwards. I have run user acceptance tests in groups but after reading this article, I am inclined to suggest that those tests are run individually. This might not only stop the influence of the dominant personality but it might also remove any tendency created by the tester.

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

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