Avoiding groupthink

How many people do you know who can –

  1. Identify the biases they bring to the table and understand how they can be used (for good or bad)?
  2. Listen to and respect all views while recognising ideas are not equal?
  3. Bring others along but not at the cost of sound decision-making, even when that means standing alone?
  4. Encourage a style of dissent that does not veer to chaos or produce fake consent?

Coherence is so strongly associated with survival and its value so deeply embedded in management practice that we would rather deal with the future consequences of a bad decision than the discomfort of going against the group here and now.

This is called groupthink and it’s what happens when members of any in-group try to minimise conflict by agreeing to something without critically evaluating alternatives. Disagreement is often perceived as disloyalty, rather than as a path to better decision-making.

Groupthink has been implicated in many disasters, from the Bay of Pigs to the GFC. What has emerged in much of the research that follows these events is that many people had doubts about what was happening but did not speak out, sometimes to remain ‘in’ but also because of an understandable concern they might lose their jobs.

The pressure to conform can be overt but subtler cues are also effective – fidgeting, silences, a ‘cut the air with a knife’ atmosphere can prompt people to agree simply to defuse the tension.

There is a cost to standing apart. Any of us can confuse our ideas with who we are and feel attacked when they are criticised, inadvertently compelling people to agree with us or risk our displeasure.

One reason we assume groups produce better decisions than individuals is because we think the sum of many ideas is better than one. However, groups do not function as we would expect. According to Ulrich Klocke groups develop biases for shared information and those who disagree risk being expelled.

We are also more influenced by who delivers the message than its content (called the argument from authority). A bad idea championed by an influencer can quickly grow legs.

A leader who understands this bias and genuinely wants input will often hold back during ideation so that they do not anchor the group. They can also use the bias constructively to move the group forward when required. Identifying the fine line between constructive use of bias and manipulation requires the right intention, discipline and judgement.

University of Toronto’s Chun Wei Choo says leaders can also manage groupthink by, for example, setting up subgroups to tackle the same problem using different assumptions and deliberately look for gaps.

Some managers use pressure to drive an outcome regardless of how it’s achieved. These people fail to understand that a business is just a collection of highly complex decision-makers called people. Employees may do what they’re told under threat but may behave in ways that undermine the business, for example, by being present but unproductive.

So why do some applaud the Machiavellian approach as if only the strongest leaders are capable of behaving in this way? Why are leaders who care about the impact of their decisions on others cast as softer?

People can confuse brute force with strength and fail to see that the short-term ‘results’ these managers get can damage a business in the long run.

Forceful leaders appear as if they have conviction, it’s impressive and can be intimidating. However, often when you lift the lid there’s bluff. They’re so confident though that people don’t think to question them. However, when bluff is coupled with power (that comes directly from having a senior position or by association with those who have it) it can have serious impacts.

One way to guard against these types is to recognise when someone is attempting to destabilise you. Constructive feedback tends to elicit ‘aha, I see’ responses that make us feel supported. A player will pull the rug from under your feet. Maintain a critical mind that questions ‘the facts’.

For example, some time ago an executive slammed down (theatrically) a document that I had prepared and announced that it was “inadequate to say the least”, and he’d worked through the night to fix it.

This had the intended effect of destabilising me but I immediately identified that was happening. When I laid the revisions beside the original I found that two short paragraphs had been inserted, somewhat randomly, into the text. A quick Google linked me to the original source, a direct cut and paste from a third-party website. Those were the only changes. Because this guy was a player and there were other more important priorities I let it slide. But when he decided to repeat the point at a project meeting, I was forced to point out that the emperor had no clothes.

This style of leadership does not require insight, discernment or courage, just gumption. But its impact is so destructive that we spend our time trying to pick out the emotional shrapnel rather than checking the evidence.

So how can we develop the right balance of independence and cohesion, the discipline not to ‘go with the flow’ but assert a view, while contributing constructively to and being part of a group?

First, we need to be aware what biases we bring to the table and think about how they can be used.

They include –

  1. Confirmation bias We seek information that confirms what we already believe and ignore that which contradicts it
  2. Self-serving bias We assume we are responsible for our successes but failures are beyond our control
  3. The argument from authority We’re more influenced by who delivers the message than its content (which means influential people can anchor and steer a conversation)

Second, we need the strength to drive a view in the face of disagreement but be flexible enough to let it go in the face of better evidence (rather than peer pressure). It’s important not to confuse being stubborn with being strong.

Third, we need to learn to better tolerate the discomfort in the here and now to make decisions that deliver better long-term outcomes. We are, quite simply, not good at this. One reason we procrastinate is that we think that how we feel now is how we will feel in the future, so put off hard decisions.

Awareness, psychological flexibility and a tolerance for discomfort are some of the most difficult skills to acquire and they require practice.

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