The Groupthink Crisis
Is our obsession with consensus killing innovation?
The meeting goes better than expected and you get your viewpoint across. After a quick round of friendly discussion, the team reaches an easy consensus. As always, there’s the feel of close-knit collaborators: you’ve got the team’s back, they’ve got yours. While it isn’t the most innovative of decisions, you’ve noticed just how cohesive everyone is these days…
What you’ve just experienced is what Yale research psychologist, Irving L. Janis, described as the ‘warm, clubby atmosphere’ and ‘illusion of invulnerability’ that leads to “groupthink”. A term coined by Janis back in 1971 and explored by psychologists ever since, groupthink is a type of thinking engaged in by a group that puts reaching consensus on an issue above everything else – including honest communication and the kind of independent critical thinking that allows creativity and innovation to thrive.
The danger of consensus
A few years back, I wrote a post about consensus being an enemy of good leadership. Looking at how freedom of information is impacting our leaders, I shared my increasing disquiet at the media’s bloodthirsty desire for detail and disclosure. Forcing leaders into silence, making them whipping sticks for those who feel sufficiently disenfranchised to protest – but not sufficiently motivated by their beliefs to step up – is a slippery slope towards trying to please everyone, but ending up pleasing no one.
Consensus is intimately bound up with groupthink, while the key to leadership effectiveness is cultivating the kind of environment in which dissenting voices are heard, valued, and explored. My feeling now is that the businesses that are going to survive the current economic shitstorm we’re in are those that are willing to throw groupthink overboard, batten down the hatches, and get ready to innovate their way through. So, how do you do it?
Nurture your dissenters
Subconscious bias means we’re wired to seek out people who think like us, yet for an organisation to be able to grow, a confident leader needs to nourish dialogue, disagreement and dissent. Where a leadership system discourages dissent, it tends to go underground, often becoming magnified through its oppression. As CEO and writer Margaret Heffernan comments in her TED talk, Dare to Disagree, ‘we have to be prepared to change our minds’. Heffernan urges us to see ‘conflict as thinking’, something ‘we have to get really good at’, rather than creating the kind of echo chambers that stifle growth.
Inviting outside experts in; keeping the group structure organic; breaking teams into two groups to debate an issue – and then having them switch sides after 10 minutes; shifting roles and responsibilities; remaining open to external influences; asking team members to play devil’s advocate – there are myriad ways an inspired leader can challenge the insidious creep of groupthink. Ask your employees, “what if we were to do it differently?”
Don’t mistake harmony for a sign of strength
The fact is that sometimes a leader is so embroiled in the feelgood factor of a cohesive team – a team that represents their worldview – that they aren’t even aware of the influence of groupthink. The deeper the harmony runs, the harder it is for people to challenge it: no one wants to be the one to raise a dissenting view for fear of ‘rocking the boat’. (Incidentally, Irving Janis’ research led him to cite the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster as an example of the phenomenon: while engineers of the space shuttle knew about the faulty parts months before take-off, their deepest desire was to ‘preserve group harmony’ rather than face derision or shatter the ‘illusion of unanimity’ by speaking out.) It’s important to realise that this kind of top-down leadership will kill your business if you don’t allow those below you to make decisions without your permission.
Delegate authority. Give all members of your team your trust. Allow them to express themselves and save your views for last. The more you lean into this kind of confident leadership, the sooner you’ll realise that most will make sensible decisions that minimise risk and maximise creativity.
Some of my leadership clients choose to skip the debating meetings altogether to give their team an opportunity to discuss matters without them, or act as facilitator rather than share their own opinions. Actively employing people from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, mindsets and ideologies mitigates the homogeneity – and desire to harmonise with others – that leads to groupthink.
To continue to root out groupthink and grow your effectiveness as a leader, an objective viewpoint is often needed. Personal and professional development is vital for leadership effectiveness, as is a commitment to create healthy management systems that lead to higher levels of creativity and innovation. Get really honest with yourself: Are you prizing harmony over dissent? Ease over growth? The status quo over innovation? Supporting leaders to grow, adapt and change is what I do – let’s challenge groupthink together.