How to Avoid Groupthink: Encourage Dissent in Teams

November 20, 2017
November 20, 2017 Joe Britto

The idea that leaders should encourage different points of view isn’t new. A range of viewpoints leads to better decision making, and people suppressing any dissent from the party line results in groupthink. And groupthink can often have disastrous consequences. The financial meltdown in 2008 and the deadly Columbia space shuttle disaster are two of the more extreme examples.

But whether encouraging dissent in teams leads to better ideas is often beside the point. Yes, it’s become almost obligatory for every business piece to mention that we live and work in uncertain times. And yet it’s true we often don’t know which idea is the ‘best’ one, or whether that decision will still be the best one a couple of years down the road.

When we’re working under uncertain conditions what matters more is our willingness to hear and respond to ideas that aren’t our own. What matters is our flexibility of mind.

As leaders we can judge our flexibility of mind by being able to adapt our plans according to the input we receive, and seeing the holes in our own thinking. And doing that without a sense of personal ego that sees us defending our ideas. Of course that’s only possible if at the outset we accept that there could be holes in our thinking.

Dissension is something we should use for our own ideas first.

How Groupthink Happens

Let’s take a look at how groupthink happens, and how we can counter it.

With the current polarisation in politics and culture and the proliferation of opinions on social media you’d think it would be easy to give voice to a contrary opinion. But despite our individualism we’re often unwilling to recognise we have a strong drive to conform, especially when we’re face-to-face and in a workplace. People might be having furious arguments with strangers online but in many workplaces rocking the boat in team meetings is a lot less common. And a fear of speaking out can create an environment where groupthink flourishes.

To cultivate flexibility of mind, teams need what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety”. Psychological safety is the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. Edmondson noticed that teams with leaders who cultivated a flexible mindset by encouraging questioning and acknowledging they could be wrong performed better.

As well as a fear of questioning the status quo, working in a monoculture breeds groupthink. Let’s say our team members look like us, are the same gender, ethnic group, or had the same career progression. It’s not a big surprise if we all agree on a topic. The obvious way to tackle monocultural groupthink is cultivating a diversity of backgrounds that can offer a range of opinions into the mix. The payoff of having our views challenged through a reasoned debate is the mental workout it gives our flexible thinking mindset.

Embracing Flexibility of Mind  

The Enron debacle is an example of the way groupthink can embed itself in an organization. The self-reinforcing groupthink instinct creates the perfect environment for people to take ever more risky and irrational decisions. The fewer dissenting viewpoints there are the bigger the risk for anyone who does speak out. And for many the consequences look too great to take a risk and stand out.

Flexibility of mind flourishes in an organization when as leaders we show that articulating different or challenging viewpoints is not just accepted but encouraged. It flourishes when leaders interrogate our own ideas first. And when we listen and promote dissent and debate? That builds our flexible mindset muscles even more.

Making decisions in a complex environment will never be easy. We can’t predict the future or know that our decision will be right. Yes in our complex world there will probably be unforeseen consequences as well as positive results.

But cultivating flexibility of mind can help us avoid groupthink when we have to deal with those consequences. And perhaps more importantly, flexibility of mind gives our decisions the gift of humility.


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