“When we all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
In the classic Hans Christian Andersen story, everyone tells the Emperor what he wants to hear, that his new clothes are beautiful. No one wants to tell the Emperor that he’s naked, until a child names the truth, and the Emperor learns he’s been fooled by the weavers.
What happened to the Emperor isn’t just fairy tale nonsense. It's the real-life experience of many leaders who surround themselves with teams who have become accustomed to the practice of approaching problems or issues that are dealt with by consensus, rather than by individuals acting with independent thoughts, ideas, and taking personal responsibility.
The less honest feedback a leader receives the more they do not understand the reality of their situation.
Such leaders may not walk down the street naked. But lack of information can lead to poor decisions, missed opportunities, and damaged integrity.
Groupthink is common in groups of true peers where individuals will avoid conflict or expressing a diversity of ideas to avoid giving offense, being seen as foolish or outlandish, or avoid sticking out or making waves.
Groupthink can cause the suppression of options, ideas, and viewpoints that are outside of the status quo or the comfort zone of leaders and decision makers.
Groupthink is used in hierarchical groups to preserve the power and prestige of the leadership who view challenges to their ideas as attacks on their authority.
A leader can avoid groupthink is by focusing on:
- others in the group and dynamics
- the larger situation.
Tune in to Self Awareness
A leader needs to develop self-awareness. It’s important for them to know their strengths, and limitations. A leader can develop self-awareness by seeking honest feedback from trusted advisers, peers, friends, and family members.
The key is to find people who can hold up an honest mirror, and then to be open to what leaders see in the mirror, warts and all. Often, that means looking for support outside of their organization.
Such a resources can help leaders see where their your biases limit their ability to take in information that contradicts, and challenges their opinions. The good news is that once leaders are aware of their limitations, they can work to move beyond them.
Focus on Others
The easiest way for a leader to focus on others is to truly hear what they have to say by silencing themselves.
Leaders often promote self-censorship by expressing their own views early, thus discouraging disagreement. Those who voice their opinions early tend to self-silence lower status members of the group. Leaders who model an open mind and ask for candid opinions can reduce this problem.
By refusing to take a firm position at the outset this makes way for more information to emerge.By indicating a willingness to hear uniquely held information from members of work groups, they will glean a diversity of thoughts and ideas and encourage creative solutions to solve problems, and create new opportunities.
Become Comfortable with Conflict
When a team consists of a cohesive in-group, its members habitually try to minimize conflict and reach consensus quickly. But by doing so, they miss out on critical evaluation of alternatives.
In homogeneous teams, fewer people are willing to play the devil’s advocate, raise dissenting opinions, or challenge the group’s consensus. Diverse groups are more likely to bring fresh ideas to the table and to explore all available information.
A leader must understand and welcome the potential for some discomfort as their teams do their work, and can help employees cope by explaining that conflict often leads to better results.
See the Big Picture
Beyond leaders being aware of themselves, and listening closely to the people around them, they need to be able to see the big picture. One way to achieve this is for leaders to surround themselves with diverse people and teams whose expertise, experience, and worldview differs and complements their own.
Diverse teams, are more productive and effective. A mistaken assumption is that if a group works well together that it’s effective. But evidence shows they are actually less efficient at problem solving!
Teams that believe they don’t work well together repeatedly came up with better solutions to the problems posed. A degree of discomfort can improve results.
Move Beyond groupthink
Shuffle the Deck
One way you can move beyond groupthink and achieve new ideas is to intentionally bring together people from different parts of the organization. For example, have an employee from accounting be part of a sales team meeting. "Shuffle the deck" frequently. When you give people a broad base of exposure to your organization, both the organization and the individuals benefit.
Cross-training, by moving individuals across the organization, broadens their experience and exposes them to how the organization really works. Tomorrow’s leaders will emerge from these more effective teamwork experiences.
Think About Your Own Situation
- How well do you listen to differing perspectives in your organization, and outside of it?
- How well does your organization deal with conflict? Do you avoid or embrace conflict?
- How has groupthink affected you, and your organization? What can you do to avoid or reduce the effects of groupthink?