Group-level Consequences of Psychological Problems

In a previous post, we introduced the distinction between psychological disorders (massive life-shattering issues like some forms of schizophrenia and drug addiction) from psychological problems (more minor issues like being anger-driven or avoiding parties). And we highlighted that although disorders are obviously important to address, neglecting psychological problems comes at a cost for our ability to optimize.

What are the consequences of this model for groups, particularly in terms of norms?

First, let’s avoid reification bias here: we’re not looking for an inherent notion of bad or good norms, of moral rightness of groups and things like that. Instead we’re interested in incentive structures, and their consequences for the performance and health of the group.

So what happens if members of a group don’t address their psychological problems, and the group doesn’t incentivize dealing with these?

  • Generation of new psychological problems

    • Example: Person A doesn’t like working in the group office. Yet they are still required to do so by group norms to boost productivity and collaboration. However, if they have a health issue (being tired, feeling a bit sick today, etc.), now from the productivity perspective letting them work from home is better. This creates incentives to find themselves in situations where they say and feel that they are too tired, for example:

      • Lie about being tired.

      • Pay too much attention to their tiredness, as it gives them an excuse (therefore making them actually feel more tired!)

      • Trick themselves into thinking they are tired. If they have feelings that are close to tiredness, and they’re unsure of how to interpret them, they’ll feel a slight pull toward tiredness.

      • Sleep late, as they can genuinely say the next day that they are tired and get to work from home.

  • Generation of friction and constraints

    • Example: Person A suffers from anxieties about publishing, although they’re the best person to write and edit an important post, and so the post gets delayed again and again.

    • Example: Person A needs a given task done asap, and is the kind of person who needs a tight control over the process, but Person B who is actually doing the tasks can’t stand micro-managing and control.

  • Pushing toward lowest-common-denominator actions

    • Example: Group manager/​president/​leader figures out that the best strategic approach to take is to do X. Yet they know that Person A will react badly because of the risks of public scrutiny, and Person B will refuse to not be the main focus of the research effort, and Person C won’t say anything but will be offended by some random aspect of the statement and will blow up months later. The intersection of all these constraints reduces the action-space of the group leader again and again, and causes a lowest-common-denominator situation where the final result is the best that everybody will agree on, which is significantly worse than the best.

So we see that a lack of norms around psychological problems creates costs in time and energy at all levels of the group, enough to significantly diminish it.

How to address this? Dealing with psychological problems, like any personal emotional issue, is tricky to work on from managing or leadership positions, as it’s so easy to overstep professional boundaries and unwillingly makes things worse. But there are pretty simple norms that seem to go most of the way:

  • Have a group culture of professionalism, politeness, and respect. This will defuse tension again and again, and make it obvious when reactions are pushing into the psychological problem territory.

  • Make every group member responsible for their own emotions. If interactions are professional and respectful, then the emotional reactions of group members are not the responsibility of others, neither their direct interlocutors nor group leadership. Not accepting the victim mentality that blames other group members for how one feels.

  • Provide means for group members to start working on their psychological problems. This includes benefits like mental health, fitness training, coaching, but also rules about when to be in the office, and team building events to make people resiliently collaborative.

That’s what we’ve come up with, but obviously we encourage readers to experiment and share ideas and/​or results.