Why interrupting your staff leads to better decision-making

Written by
Colin Fisher

11 Apr 2017

11 Apr 2017 • by Colin Fisher

Sometimes this strategy backfires. Often, employees are too afraid to ask for help and people in leadership fail to see that; fear keeps them from seeking advice or feedback. Getting help when it’s needed is a sign of a healthy organisation and a healthy worker.

But when is the best time to help?

Contrary to what some believe, trying to prevent problems in teams by advising them before they start a task simply isn’t better than interrupting them during it.

My recent research at UCL School of Management shows that teams make superior decisions if advice is interjected during their discussions, rather than offered right before they begin working. 

I studied the timing and impact of formal interventions in decision-making groups. Results showed that giving teams advice ahead of time in order to prevent problems from arising was less effective than interrupting with in-process interventions. 

Unpredictable research findings

These in-process interventions are more effective because decision-making groups see more value in interruptive advice than in preventative advice, which leads them to share more critical information and come to better decisions, compared to groups getting the same advice prior to their task – even when the difference between receiving the information was just a few minutes. 

Teams that were interrupted had more productive discussions on an assortment of measures, remarkably improving the quality of the decisions they made. This goes against the conventional wisdom that prevention is always better than cure. 

Surprisingly, the research shows that the specific timing of in-process interventions had virtually no significant effects on information pooling or group decisions – just as long as the groups were advised during their tasks – so we can easily state that decision-making groups respond more strongly to interventions designed to cure process problems, rather than prevent them before they have a chance to take hold.

To reach this conclusion, I conducted experiments with 124 three-person groups. They had to make two decisions about launching a fictitious new gourmet restaurant. To reveal the best choices, members had to pool their individual information.  

Groups were filmed receiving advice either before their discussion, or at varying points during their discussions. The recorded videos of their conversations were used to measure the discussion length, level of advocacy, and amount of information shared, all of which predicted the likelihood of choosing the correct path to follow.   

The intervention used – suggesting group members consider all of the available information before making a closing decision – was wonderfully simple and fast. This basic advice helped groups more when it came during their discussions than when it was given even just seconds before deliberations began. This strongly suggests that an important change occurs in the moments from just before to just after discussion begins. In those moments, the idea of making this specific decision with this specific group of people becomes more concrete. That feeling leads the group to see value in the advice, and to actually use it. 

For managers and leaders of decision-making groups, this research has clear implications. While it can be uncomfortable or awkward to interrupt groups that are in the process of discussing an important decision, small reminders to share and consider all available information during a conversation can go a long way – far more than giving pre-task instructions or doing nothing at all! 

Banish the fear

There shouldn’t be any fear around interrupting teams. In fact, it’s likely to produce more considered and well-rounded decisions as a result. Past research has shown that getting consistent help from a boss is linked to better performance, it makes perfect sense to think that improvement follows advice and feedback from the high-status, experienced people where we work. 

There’s a restricting belief we have that when a boss gets involved it’s negative, that it’s micromanaging, but there are lots of ways for a boss to get involved that are helpful – providing advice during team meetings is just one way. 

When managers give this advice, it’s important to remember, it is better to focus on how decisions are made – the actual process – rather than on what decision to make. That’s the key. 

Now future research should examine in-process interventions outside of the laboratory, the situations that haven’t been created for research purposes, and investigate on-going teams working on a variety of tasks, from brainstorming to problem solving. By looking further at the way groups make decisions in real life, we can all learn more about how to best manage teams.