Thinking Together

If you think working together is a powerful form or co-Operation, what until you try thinking together. The following essay is reposted from Integral Enlightenment.

Craig Hamilton and Claire Zammit, Ph.D.

We’ve all heard by now about the “wisdom of crowds”—the notion that the aggregated intelligence of any group is nearly always superior to the intelligence of any individual in that group. We know, for instance, that if a group of us average our guesses at the number of jelly beans in a jar, our “collective guess” will usually come closer to the mark than the best individual guess in the room. We know that this principle accounts for the wisdom that regulates markets, and that consistently returns good search results on Google.

Why, then, is it so often the case that when it comes to critical decision-making, thinking together as a small group tends to make us stupid rather than smart? Why do even our best attempts at collaboration often leave us secretly wishing for the simplicity and sharpness of outmoded “command and control” decision-making? With “groupthink” phenomena now well-studied, we know that primitive social drives for control, belonging and status can imperceptibly sabotage our collective pursuit of clarity. But, what prevents this knowledge from being integrated to the point that our collective intelligence is not only an aggregate phenomenon but a lived experience?

For those of us in positions of leadership whose success depends on our ability to tap the wisdom of our organizations and communities, the need to find a way out of this collective constipation is paramount. The following pages will explore an emerging paradigm which suggests some tangible methodologies for overcoming the social barriers to group intelligence, and ushering in a new era of collaborative thinking and collective creativity.

The Possibility

Imagine a group of people gathered for a creative strategy session with an unusual mandate. The entry fee for this conversation is that everyone has made a sincere and educated effort to check their “ego” at the door. With personal agendas temporarily set aside, there is a noticeable absence of self-consciousness, or self-concern of any kind. The familiar jockeying for position has vanished, and along with it, all approval seeking. No one seems invested in being right, appearing smart, or appearing any particular way at all. In the absence of these familiar negative social behaviors, there is simply an authentic, innocent, undefended interest in creatively engaging the task at hand. Without the familiar, primitive “mental noise” blocking the system, listening is deep and there is plenty of space for considered reflection. Unified by a heartfelt and soulful commitment to a greater good, the group flows easily from one idea to the next. Diverging points of view are engaged organically, effortlessly, in the recognition that a diversity of perspectives represents a rich field of data to mine for insights. All questions and concerns are welcomed into the inquiry. Aware of the ever-looming specter of paralyzing group dynamics, an atmosphere of humility pervades, and an embodied knowledge that confronting the questions that challenge our deepest assumptions is our only safeguard against collective error.

Seeing Beyond the Self

The above scenario may sound like science fiction at worst, or wishful thinking at best. After all, most of us would be hard-pressed to point to a single example of a group we’ve participated in that bore any resemblance to this one. It is thus all the more significant to realize that the scenario described above was not derived from imagination, but from the lived experience of groups working to pioneer a new model for collective engagement.

As the above example suggests, at the heart of this new model is the conviction that the singular impediment to optimal group functioning is what has traditionally been known as “ego.” Whether in the form of self-concern, self-aggrandizement, self-doubt, self-consciousness, self-infatuation, or self-absorption, this knot in the center of the psyche has long been recognized to be the lone obstacle to higher moral, spiritual and psychological development in individuals. But the recognition that this same unhealthy self-focus is the prime saboteur of higher collective functioning is a relatively new idea.

In part, this is a natural and expected progression. As organizations have begun to push the outer envelope of collaborative skill-building and collective functioning in general, it seemed only a matter of time before they would come up against the same challenge as those who have been working on individual development for centuries. But there is an element to this newfound discovery that is unique to the life conditions of our historical moment.

Confronted by an ever-growing array of global challenges, those at the leading edges of collective inquiry are recognizing the urgent need to pioneer new, more effective ways of thinking together about the big questions. In the midst of this urgency, there is a growing willingness to experiment with unorthodox approaches, including those arising from the time-tested spiritual psychologies of the East. As goal-oriented teams begin to apply the insights of meditation and inner cultivation to their collaborative pursuits, some surprising new possibilities are revealing themselves. Foremost among these is a collection of revolutionary social technologies that leverage positive group dynamics to catalyze trans-egoic creative collaboration among participants.

Understanding Ego: the Foundation

To begin to get a sense of how a group might be able to function beyond the grip of ego, it is first necessary to get clear what exactly we are trying to move beyond. Although the word “ego” is used in a variety of ways in contemporary culture, in this context we are using it to refer to something very specific. Within all of us, there is a primitive psychological and emotional drive for security and certainty. During our early evolution, it no doubt served countless important functions, but here in the 21st century, as we attempt to evolve our capacities for creativity and consciousness, this drive has developed into a pathology—a pathology of self-concern.

There is not sufficient space in this brief overview to elaborate in detail on the ego’s many faces, but if we look at a typical group interaction, we can easily see its effect: If I am concerned about how I’m going to be perceived in the group, will I be willing to take a risk to challenge the group’s assumptions? If I am driven by a need to establish my dominance over others, how interested will I be in hearing their points of view? If I am worried about how the group’s decision is going to affect my own department, will I be available to explore all possibilities with an open mind? If I have an unrealistic sense of intellectual superiority, will I be willing to listen to ideas that challenge my own? If I am overly attached to a positive image of myself, will I be able to hear corrective feedback about my negative impact on others?

The list of the ego’s undermining effects on group functioning is a long one, and those who have spent any time in collaborative environments could no doubt add many more to the few we have mentioned here. In the face of this seemingly ubiquitous obstacle to optimal collaboration, what then are we to do?

Drawing from our two decades of group facilitation and observation, we have put together a short list of core principles that begin to illuminate the contours of a new approach to high-level collaborative thinking. It is by no means comprehensive, but should give a snapshot of our best thinking on this to date.

Principles of Evolutionary Culture

1. A Commitment to the Greater Good: All of the individuals in the group must be genuinely committed to discovering and/or achieving the best possible outcome for the whole. Individual or departmental agendas must be set aside. Bringing the group to this high level of commitment may take considerable preparation, but is most easily achieved when all of those involved are on board with the organization’s greater mission, and when there is a trust already established in the leadership’s commitment to fairness.

2. A Commitment to Wholehearted Engagement: Each group member must be committed to fully participate in all group meetings. This means bringing one’s full attention to the matter at hand, leaving all personal concerns at the door. By listening carefully to the contributions of others and putting their own best thinking into the mix, each member contributes to the building of a larger vessel which can carry the group to unforeseen heights of insight.

3. A Culture of Self-Responsibility: All group members must feel personally responsible for the success of the group. Each must feel on a visceral level that the success of the group in achieving its outcomes rests on her shoulders alone. Given our natural tendency to defer responsibility, cultivating this level of ultimate personal responsibility among members of any group is a formidable task. One-on-one work with group members outside the group setting is usually necessary.

4. A Suspension of Assumptions: For the duration of the gathering, group members suspend everything they think they know in order to make room for new insights and understandings to emerge. Practicing what is known in Zen as a “beginner’s mind,” they cultivate an inner and outer environment of profound receptivity and openness, which turns out to be fertile soil for leaps in creativity.

5. A Culture of Deep Listening: Group members aspire to listen to one another from a place deeper than intellect. They tune their ears to listen for the deepest threads and the emerging glimmers of novelty in each other’s contributions, and, through their responses, they highlight and draw out those elements to make them transparent to the group.

6. A Commitment to Authenticity: Everyone in the group must be committed to speaking their mind and heart. This is built on the recognition that in order to make the best decision, the group needs everyone’s data. To support this commitment, there must be an explicit agreement within the group that no point of view—no matter how challenging to either the leadership or to the group’s assumptions—will be ridiculed or dismissed without genuine, respectful consideration.

7. A Culture of Risk-Taking: Nothing takes us to the edge of evolution faster than taking meaningful risks. This means speaking on an intuition when we’re not sure we have the words to give voice to it. Or, responding to a gut feeling that something isn’t right, but doing so vulnerably, realizing that it might be oneself that’s not right. It also means being willing to step into new ways of being, even if they feel frightening and unfamiliar. The more risk we are each willing to take, the more profound will be the group outcome.

8. A Culture of Empowered Vulnerability: Leading by example, the leadership demonstrates that it is okay to be vulnerable, to take the risk to expose one’s ignorance and uncertainty. The group sees that such vulnerability is actually a position of strength and power because it shows a courageous willingness to step into the most insecure places. This leads to a healthy culture of non-avoidance that is the best inoculation against “groupthink.”

9. A Culture of Constant Resolution: The group strives to maintain a clear and harmonious field of interaction between all participants. This means always striving to clear up any interpersonal tension as soon as possible, so as to build a container of deep harmony and trust among everyone. It is about leaving each interaction “without a trace.” This can sometimes require additional processing outside the group meetings in order to keep group time most efficient.

10. A Commitment to Grow and Evolve: In order for the group to consistently function at an optimal level, all individuals must be committed to staying on their own “evolving edge,” by seeking healthy feedback and taking on new challenges outside their comfort zone. When all of the individuals in a group are actively and enthusiastically engaged in their own evolution, their collective spirit of boundary-breaking infuses the group with vitality and organically keeps the group on its own evolving edge.


The possibility of a group thinking together beyond the grip of ego may seem like an unattainable goal to those with extensive experience of the pathologies of group life. But there is a growing body of action research demonstrating that, through the dedicated application of the principles described above, this higher collective possibility can be made a reality. Those pioneers who are willing to experiment in this arena will find many challenges along the way, but it is our conviction that the bounty of inspired collaboration and rich human engagement that awaits is well worth the effort. Indeed, if human beings are going to rise to the challenge of our moment—that of coming together beyond our differences and giving birth to a cooperative and sustainable global village—finding a truly generative way to think together is a task that calls for the best from all of us.

© 2009 Integral Enlightenment – All Rights Reserved

Originally Published as: Thinking Together Without Ego: Collective Intelligence as an Evolutionary Catalyst

Read articles by Craig Hamilton on other related topics.