It was the first question my exec coaching client asked himself as the chairman went around the room polling everyone’s thoughts.
“Worse,” my client said, “I knew it was a really bad idea and everyone else knew it too.”
Research by social scientists documents the dangers of groupthink; an opinion gets started, a couple of people agree, and pretty soon you have a tidal wave of sentiment pushing in one direction.
It’s getting ahead by going along time; no one wants to be the spoiler that sticks out – or gets whacked – by having a different point of view.
It’s not exactly James Jones and Guyana Kool-Aid but at times it has a similar impact – deadly.
Once the ball gets rolling, it’s hard to stop it.
Kevin Evers has called groupthink “the kryptonite” of leadership. It’s an apt metaphor in that groupthink disables us all, leader and led.
If you’re leading the group, there are some easy things you can do to avoid bad group decisions:
- Do as Noreena Hertz suggests: appoint a “challenger in chief“ – someone whose formal job is to take your ideas head on so that you make better decisions.
- You can ask that people jot down their conclusions before your ask for their opinion on a slip of paper (effectively “freezing their thoughts”). They can read it themselves, or alternately pass the paper to the person to their side to read. It’s a little gimmicky but it ensures that people aren’t being swung from their valuable diverse viewpoints.
- You can also ask people to do a “premortem” – take a potential decision and talk abut the ways it would fail. It’s an idea by Gary Klein that works to mitigate disaster, particularly when people are making decisions by trusting their gut.
And if you’re being led?
- As part of the group actively welcome contrarian viewpoints – sort of a point-counterpoint to make sure a broader lay of the land gets covered.
- Ask your boss – the Chairman in my example – be be able to briefly take something off-line if you think somebody – e.g. the Chairman – is about to drive a car into a ditch and not know it. Better to have someone politely tell you in private that you’re about to look like a fool than to have everyone know it in public.
- Be brave; use your won voice. Say what’s really on your mind. People (think Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire) don’t get usually promoted (and take it from somebody who has spent time the in the deep freezer of social stigma for being “right”) for telling the boss or the social group “no” but there is one benefit – you sleep a lot better at night. Sometimes they even later thank you for your courage.
There are all sorts of decisions that benefit from making your voice heard if you have diverse opinions. Social scientists research shows that the quality of the decision is better.
The trick is in getting those diverse views out, avoiding groupthink, and not losing those voices.
Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.