Twelve jurors crammed into a claustrophobic room on a scorching hot summers day to decide the fate of an 18-year-old man accused of murder is the setting for one of the most powerful films ever made. ‘12 Angry Men’ is often lauded for its wonderful dialogue, dramatic effect, superlative acting and intriguing exploration of the human psyche.
The context for the film is that, following the closing arguments in a trial, the members of the jury feel that they are in a straightforward open and shut case of first-degree murder and they simply need to deliver their ‘guilty’ verdict back to the judge. Everything seems inevitable until Juror #8 goes against the group and votes ‘not guilty’ and asks the group whether they can talk about their decision before committing to the ‘guilty’ verdict.
From this moment on there is heated debate with a battle of logic and emotion as each of the juror’s start to reveal their own unique mix of personality preferences, prejudices, perspectives, insecurities, and biases. Juror #8 challenges the assumptions of some of the facts that have been presented and slowly but surely each of the remaining members of the jury start to see the situation differently and begin to raise questions of their own. In doing so they reveal many of the complexities of the group dynamic and the individual motivations underpinning their actions.
High Performing teams
So, what can a fictional black and white court room drama set in 1957 tell us about high performing teams today?
For a start, the story is a great example of the dangers of group think (where our desire to conform and not question things results in dysfunctional decision making). At the start of the film the verdict is a fore gone conclusion and some of the most powerful and dominant personalities lead the narrative in such a way that it is hard to challenge their conclusions. However, the film then reveals the power of psychological safety (the sense of whether it is okay to take an interpersonal risk and speak up without fear of retribution). When juror #8 challenges the thinking of the group and suggests they should discuss the case further it opens a dialogue that slowly increases the safety in the room, so that others start to raise their own insights, questions, and observations.
One by one, more questions get asked, more assumptions get challenged, and more perspectives get presented. Finally, we see the true power of cognitive diversity (the inclusion of people who embrace unique and different perspectives when solving problems) when the group feel free to openly discuss the case and start to see different points of view. Finally, when one of the jurors with a particularly sharp eye for intricate details makes a subtle yet profound observation, the case is flipped on its head, new conclusions are drawn, and the true wisdom of the team is revealed.
Brains, not roles
The fascinating thing about 12 angry men is that, as a jury, they are not there representing their technical expertise or workplace roles (e.g., salesman, bankers, architects, painters, sports coaches, etc.). They are there purely for their minds, and not their skills.
In teams today, we can fall back into simply delivering our technical roles. We stay in our lane. We report on our departmental updates. And we comment only on the things in which we perceive we have ‘technical expertise’. Thus, genuine collaboration can be limited, and we start to operate more as a working group than an open interactive team.
Yet, high performing teams need both technical expertise and great collective brain power. Establishing where a team needs ‘our brains and not just our roles’ is crucial in teams performing and adapting to the ever-changing world that we are experiencing. Team challenges that require problem solving, innovation, strategic thinking, and collective decision making all require the power of all our diverse contributions to truly experience the real value of team working.
‘12 Angry Men’ in the 21st Century…
On reflection, ‘12 Angry Men’ seems somewhat outdated from a cultural diversity perspective, having been created over 60 years ago (e.g., the jury is made up of 12 white, middle-aged men), and yet from a cognitive diversity and team dynamics perspective there are lessons that are poignant for us in 2021. Teams today are complex, and we know the world is moving quickly. Change is the norm, opinions can be polarized, and we are expected to perform through great uncertainty.
Over the last 15 months of the pandemic, teams have had to adapt and adjust their way of operating to allow for remote working. One of the consequences of this has been that many teams have started to operate more like working groups (sticking to agendas, providing updates, sharing information, reporting on actions, etc). Thus, opportunities for collaborative problem solving or creative thinking has been much reduced.
As we move away from the world of virtual meetings into a more hybrid way of operating, we may find that our interactions become less structured. This may result in more opportunities for us to offer insight outside of our set roles. However, even if we find that this isn’t the case, considering how we might sculpt our day-to-day environment to foster a culture of collaboration may help us to rediscover ways in which we may tap into the different brains within the team.
So, I guess the main message here, is that for teams to be effective, we all need to be prepared to share our own unique juror #8 thinking. This works particularly well if we are also open, curious, and tolerant when other people do the same, and share perspectives that are different to our own. Maybe then we can experience the true collective wisdom of teams and really benefit from embracing our brains and not just our roles as we reconnect with one another again in the physical world.
This blog post was written by Mark, our co-founder and CEO.