5 Ways to Prevent Groupthink from Damaging Your Values
A recent strategy+business article caught my attention: When Cultural Values Lead to Groupthink, the Company Loses. At first, I thought the authors of this article were arguing for the use of values to address specific societal issues. But then I realized they were addressing a serious – and growing – trend in business.
Let’s first be clear on what’s meant by the term groupthink.
Groupthink is defined as the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility. It’s a form of deceptive organizational communication that makes it difficult to adopt values in a fully authentic way.
This is more than simply a negative concept. It has the potential to create very damaging outcomes for any type of organization.
I have personally witnessed this in action, sitting in meetings at client offices, more often in larger companies. I’ve watched smart, talented people openly say one thing, knowing they don’t agree with it, and working behind the scene against it.
Simply stated: groupthink promotes dishonesty.
Imagine a scenario where some employees at a company smile and zealously proclaim the company’s core values, but never take action to support them or consider them in their decision-making, or worse, they quietly work against them. On the one hand, these employees are trying to demonstrate to others that they are team players. On the other hand, they clearly possess reservations about the values and may even feel they’re not good or right, and have no intention to ever support them.
This is what happens when groupthink takes hold. It’s worse than being insincere. It’s downright deceitful.
Examples of Groupthink in Action
The concern over groupthink is not limited to broad societal and moral issues, such as viewpoints about same-sex marriage, immigration, global warming, etc. (which are often associated with values). Groupthink can also negatively impact the power of differentiating values that were purposefully selected to make a strategic difference and create competitive advantage.
For example, the authors of the S+B article suggest seemingly safe values such as “courage” and “excellence” are also susceptible to groupthink. They suggest the value of courage could dishearten people who prize temperance and stability. And the pursuit of excellence could be seen as encouraging perfectionism, which might hinder employees’ nimbleness and agility.
Another example highlighted was the value of “customer-centricity”. Here the authors suggest employees might enthusiastically talk about how much they care about customers, yet privately they might feel this could compromise product R&D or they doubt whether the company can actually master it. The consequence of groupthink means members of the team never raise their concerns or challenge their leaders about potentially distressing issues.
Bottom line: The damaging result of groupthink leads to reduced commitment and the erosion of trust. In addition, the very benefits expected from having differentiating values are lost.
5 Ways to Prevent Groupthink
Is it possible to address the negative outcomes associated with groupthink? Thankfully, yes. Here are five ways to address and even prevent groupthink:
- Plan for it. Be proactive and ready to address it when it surfaces or feels like it might surface.
- Seek feedback. Reach out to those who will be impacted by decisions and obtain their feedback. Seek out the subtle issues (no matter how small) and address them openly.
- Encourage debate. As Patrick Lencioni outlines in his book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, true commitment from everyone on the team is only created through healthy debate (or conflict). Watch this video to learn more.
- Leverage diversity of thought. Tapping into different thinking styles and personalities ensures a more holistic view of how others think and feel about a topic. It also creates a safe place to discuss issues and concerns.
- Recognize data bias. Instead of relying on data as facts, acknowledge that data and statistics might be biased, such as insiders handpicking data to reassure leaders about decisions already made.
The intent here is not to make everyone happy (that’ll never happen). It’s to ensure all viewpoints and concerns have been heard and addressed. It’s also to identify those that might not be a good fit for the organization. As Jim Collins highlighted in his book Good to Great, it’s important to have the right people on the bus.
A key objective for stated values is to filter out those that don’t belong, and attract those who resonate with them.
So, if you experience someone in your organization showing overzealous enthusiasm about the stated values, or appearing to seek recognition for their support of the values, take some time to have a private conversation with them to ensure they truly support them. Ask some probing questions, listen intently, and seek to understand what they really think. If needed, engage in some healthy debate, take an opposing view, and/or engage others in the conversation to weed out groupthink.
If groupthink goes unaddressed, we end up with disasters situations such as Enron, WorldCom, and Lehman Brothers.
It’s ok to have differing points of view. But it’s not ok to have people being inauthentic.