EVEN if 1,000 people commit the same stupid act, it’s still called nothing else but that – stupidity. Great numbers can’t absolve you. Take groupthink as another buzzword. In every set-up, members often want to be seen as part of a cohesive group. They don’t want to be seen as visibly different. That’s why we find it naturally pleasant than to be unusually disruptive, even if the objective is to come up with the best approach to achieve a certain goal.
Groupthink prevents us from having a desirable, winning approach. It happens when the group exerts intense verbal and non-verbal pressures on a crusader to align his or her opinion with the majority view, no matter how flawed it is. That’s because we all want to be accepted by the group where we belong; we’re susceptible to pressures from the majority, many of whom prefer not to rock the boat and just remain passive, if not indifferent.
For a clear understanding of groupthink, check the work of Solomon Eliot Asch (1906-1996), a pioneer in social psychology in the US. He has an entertaining video on the elevator groupthink at https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/13/asch-elevator-experiment/
In real life, you can imagine the adverse effects of groupthink, and the results are often disastrous. Revenues are down, activities are almost zero, and the same is true with the customer base. I know what I’m talking about here. I was a member of several non-profit advocacy organizations in the past and every time I opened my mouth to say something provocative to challenge a long-established malpractice, groupthink would immediately set in to demolish an innocent comments or questions. More often, silence would envelope the room; you could hear a pin drop. It’s also like having an elephant in the room.
This does not mean however, that groupthink is a monopoly of non-profits. Even business organizations are susceptible to groupthink. This happens when a group meeting is presided by a highest-ranking boss, a senior guy, a pioneering but influential worker, or a talkative know-it all person. The moment that person says something, no matter how foolish it may appear to be, the rest are muffled to say “amen,” resulting in self-destruction, if not near extinction.
That’s the “calamity of conformity,” according to Rolf Dobelli in “The Art of Thinking Clearly” (2013).
And so, what’s the antidote to groupthink? In a topic on leadership, Forbes.com offers five solutions to avoid the destructive effects of groupthink. Management professors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie offer the following:
One, build a critical thinking culture where intelligent dissent is solicited and respected by top management, who encourages everyone to “tell me what I need to know, even if I don’t want to hear it.”
Two, group heads must be the last one to say something after hearing all points of view, including dissenting ideas. Otherwise, a talkative boss could intimidate everyone.
Three, focus on the group’s, and not the individual’s success. If members are allowed to promote an individual agenda, chances are, it will be destructive to the group’s success.
Four, harness the role of each one’s specialization. Know who has the expertise in law, medicine, marketing, sales, human resources, or many more, including – the social media. When combined with all other talents, taken as a whole, the group can become a potent and dynamic force. Five, facilitate a “red-teaming” approach as opposed to a devil’s advocate. “Red-teaming” is better because it encourages the participation of all team members like what they do in the legal profession, when lawyers hire another set of lawyers to test the prospects of winning a pending case.
However, if your organization is a bit secretive about its programs, you can simply appoint an insider to serve as the devil’s advocate, who can be motivated to work extra hard to earn a devil’s bonus, if only to encourage a person to give his nonconforming views. If you need to get the best ideas from all stakeholders, like asking for a 360-degree feedback to help uncover any possible issue of a certain proposal or program, then you need someone who honors no fear or favor, even of the boss or the leader of one’s group.
To avoid any misunderstanding, the devil’s advocate must be established before a group is constituted. He or she must play that role, until the next person is appointed under a rotational scheme. This doesn’t mean that the devil’s advocate has that sole responsibility. Everyone is welcome to play that role, if only to ensure a wider perspective and intelligent discussion for everyone and achieve the greater success of the organization.
Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts on Elbonomics.