At Work

How to Combat Groupthink in Your Teams

By: Michael McQueen

We often hear about echo chambers and groupthink in regards to the online world, our political leanings and our social groups.

However, one of the areas most prone to the effects of groupthink is the corporate world.

One of the great challenges in any established industry is that players in a sector begin to look, think and operate in a very similar way — a phenomenon often referred to as strategy convergence. The reasons for this are quite simple. Companies tend to engage the same consulting firms to work with them, hire talent form the same pools of graduates, subscribe to the same news and attend the same conferences.

The result is a degree of industry groupthink where every company ends up wearing the same strategic blinkers while all assuming they are running a very individual race.

Take Off Your Industry Blinkers

To expand your vision and potential for innovation, you need to take your industry blinkers off. You need to look at industries entirely unrelated to your own in order to identify lessons you can learn or inspiration you could glean. You may need to read unconventional books, subscribe to unconventional magazines and attend unconventional conferences if you want to identify unconventional threats and opportunities.

Apple are the most profitable retailers in the world partly because when they went into the retail space, they didn’t look to other retailers for inspiration but looked outside of the industry. In the words of Ron Johnson, who designed Apple’s retail stores, “We wanted to create very distinct experiences for customers in what they perceive as a public place. More like a great library, which has natural light, and feels like a gift to the community.”

Beyond library-inspired aesthetics, Apple’s retail experience was also informed by a non-retail business. It was the Ritz-Carlton’s approach to concierge customer service that gave rise to Apple’s Genius Bar and store greeters.[1]

Who Are You Benchmarking Yourself Against?

The key question is this: who are you looking to and benchmarking yourself against? If it is others in your marketplace or industry, you may not be looking far and wide enough to get the inspiration and insights necessary to pre-empt disruption.

Beyond simply looking to other industries for ideas, it is equally essential to ensure that there is a range of perspectives within your own teams so that groupthink doesn’t crowd out the potential for truly innovative thought. The importance of diversity and divergent perspectives in a team is hard to overstate.

Psychologist Irving Janis argues that the lack of diversity in a group insulates it from outside opinion and convinces members over time that the group’s judgement on important issues must be right. These kinds of groups, Janis suggests, share ‘an illusion of invulnerability and a willingness to rationalize away possible counter-arguments to the group’s position’.[2]

It’s important to acknowledge that building diversity in a team or organisation doesn’t happen naturally. We humans tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us and operate like us.

Don’t Hire Someone Like You

As a colleague of mine repeatedly tells his clients: ‘Don’t hire someone like you — you already know what you think.’ And he’s right. Bill Bernbach credits much of the extraordinary growth and success of ad agency DDB to his strategy of hiring outside the recognised talent pool of the period. While most other ad agencies were predominantly white and male, Bernbach bucked the trend and attracted a far more diverse and creative cohort.[3]

In his book Why Good Companies Go Bad, Donald Sull argues that conformity in leadership played a key role in the woes of companies such as Firestone Tires, Compaq and failed automaker Daewoo. Prior to their fall from greatness, Sull suggests that these companies’ respective leadership teams had become ‘like clones’, each executive tending to reinforce a collegial point of view. In the case of Daewoo in particular, six in 10 of the company’s senior management graduated from the same university, and almost a third graduated from the same high school.[4]

While diversity is half of the solution to preventing collective blind spots, the role of dissent is equally important. After all, what is the point of having diverse perspectives if people don’t feel empowered to speak up and point out threats and opportunities that others in the group have ignored or missed?

The Danger of Conformist Culture

While every leader should aim to build a cohesive culture in their team or organisation, something dangerous occurs when a culture goes from being cohesive to being conformist. By the same token, team alignment is a wonderful thing — but perfect alignment forbids divergent thinking.

Peter Drucker went as far as to say that good decisions are always a function of dissenting views being encouraged and heard. ‘The first rule in decision-making’, he suggested, ‘is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.’[5]

Naturally, for such an approach to work, a culture has to be created where junior members of staff feel safe and encouraged to ‘speak truth to power’.[6] Psychological safety must be intentionally cultivated and dissenting voice provided the platform to speak without judgement. Leaders must ensure that those who hold radically different views or bear confronting news are encouraged rather than ignored, shunned or persecuted.

There is little doubt that homogeneity in an organisation or team can be convenient and expedient. After all, it facilitates communication, makes cohesion and unity a less nuanced process and speeds up decision making. However, the trade-off is enormous. A lack of diversity leaves any team highly vulnerable — and, as in nature, lack of diversity limits your ability to adapt and change.

If left untended, groupthink can be a truly destructive force within a team, detrimentally inhibiting the innovation that may have flourished if truly diverse perspectives were both welcomed and empowered.

[1] Garrison, M. 2013, ‘What Apple Learned From A Luxury Hotel’, Marketplace, 31 December.

[2] Surowiecki, J. 2004, The Wisdom of Crowds, Anchor Books, New York, pp. 36–37.

[3] Collister, P. 2017, How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Pan Macmillan, London, p. 95.

[4] Sull, D. 2003, Why Good Companies Go Bad, Harvard Business School, pp. 44–57.

[5] Sull, D. 2003, Why Good Companies Go Bad, Harvard Business School, p. 233.

[6] Sull, D. 2003, Why Good Companies Go Bad, Harvard Business School, p. 236.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash 

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