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The Sunflower Bias – why some people simply follow the leader?

Sunflowers are fascinating specimens of nature, they face the sun as it rises in the East and follow it across the sky until it sets in the West. As a leader you may have noticed you have people in your leadership team who do the same with you!

The Sunflower Bias was coined to explain how some team members always seem to follow the leader, they rarely push back, rarely contribute any original thought, and rarely speak until the leader has spoken. Their heliotropic behaviour seems to be pre-programmed into their personality and this can be hugely frustrating for their fellow team members who have the gumption and courage to speak out, get involved and contribute their views and thoughts.

Like all challenges leaders face, the first question to ask is what can you do to help this situation. There may be several reasons why a team member is hesitant to step forward with their views. Take a look at the emotional energy in the team, is it set to the correct level for everyone to contribute, or is it dominated by a few of the more vocal characters in the team? Matching emotional energy levels in a team is a facilitation skill which is not often taught to leaders who are driven to action and results.

The next area of focus is to look at the decision making processes within the team. I have written before about the desire in so many teams to continually seek consensus at the expense of other far more effective decision making processes, see my blog on ‘Decisions, Decisions Decisions’. In this I argue that teams have six decision making processes available to them and continually seeking consensus when compliance is required is a huge waste of time and energy.

For the Sunflower Bias situation I suggest you select either ‘Meritocracy’, when the Sunflower in the room is the technical expert or area lead in the topic in hand, or ‘Soft Autocracy’, where you declare you are going to take this decision but before you do you want to hear what everyone in the team would do if they were in your position? Both processes create the opportunity for the Sunflower to think and contribute, so long as you are patient and curious enough to seek their input.

The ‘nudge’ leaders need to combat the Sunflower Bias in their teams is to remember to stay curious longer and rush to action slower. Work on creating micro-processes in team meetings where everyone gets the chance to think, reflect and then contribute and then control the confident, often dominant characters so the Sunflowers get a chance to contribute too. Remember they are fascinating specimens of nature and you may be missing a lot by not tackling the Sunflower Bias if it exists in your team.