When Consensus Goes Off the Rails

For many organizations, company meetings may feel like necessary evils. At least, that’s how many organizations treat them. It’s tempting to reduce these obligatory get-togethers to a half-hour’s worth of head bobbing, where every vote is “yay.” After all, how important is it to question the collective wisdom of the “royal we” if the decision appears like the right one?

Groupthink and flawed decision-making

Consider this: You’ve spent months on a company-wide strategy and everyone within the C-suite is gathered for a final vote. The meeting is practically a formality, just so everyone can agree to the direction pushed forward by the strategic planning committee. Team members flip through copies of the proposal, but everyone assumes the plan is air-tight.

However, one lone executive perceives a flaw, albeit a small one. Does he raise his hand and present his observation? Or, does he resist the urge? He knows this one small error has the potential to morph into a major headache. But, he also realizes that fixing the problem now would lead to more money and manpower that the organization can’t afford to lose. In the end, he gives in to the group consensus, wishing to shirk the label of “dissenter” and remain a “team player.”

This, in a nut shell, is the tragic consequence of groupthink. As psychologist Irving Janis put it, “Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”

When disagreement is viewed as dissent, this creates a company culture that’s ripe for groupthink. Organizations risk derailment and significant losses when they avoid asking the hard questions. So, why do so many organizations still fall for the groupthink trap?

Stewart, Kneale and healthy conflict

Margaret Heffernan, an international business woman and speaker, explored this issue during a TED talk in 2012. She shared the story of Alice Stewart, a famous physician and epidemiologist, who studied the effects of radiation on health from 1950-1974.

Stewart is well known for her research on X-rays’ negative impact on pregnant women and their children. Heffernan argued that Stewart’s success has a direct correlation with her partnership with her assistant, George Kneale. Heffernan said Stewart could remain confident in her findings over her 25-year career, not because of Kneale’s consistent support, but rather his unfailing criticism. It was his job to challenge her data and find flaws in her research. If Stewart could stump Kneale, she knew she was on to something. This healthy workplace conflict led to Stewart becoming a renowned epidemiologist at a time when few women earned such distinction.

Encouraging open discussion and disagreement

In our April 13 post, “Honest Conversations vs. The Silver Bullet,” Bryan Adkins talked about the dangers of moving too quickly to action. Bypassing hard conversations to maintain momentum and save face endangers business performance. As Brian said, “Informed action is what is needed.”

But don’t get bogged down in the minutiae of decision-making, either. Too much challenge and debate can also lead to delays, or prevent decisions and actions. Encouraging challenge and debate is good, but it’s also important to be agile and efficient in reaching decisions and getting to action.

So, how do you invite open dialogue and encourage respectful challenges to group consensus while also keeping your organization on track? Here are four steps to take now:

  1. Challenge people to look at things from another perspective.

It’s easy for organizations to accept one way of doing things, just because it’s always been done that way. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? Even if something seems to work well, there may still be a better way to do things. Encourage your staff to think outside the box and beyond your company’s four walls. It helps to hold these types of creative meetings at the outset of your planning, though, not when you’re poised to make a decision.

  1. Invite new people to the table

Groupthink often occurs within tight-knit groups that have become comfortable with each other. Their friendly rapport means they avoid conflict for the sake of equanimity. By inviting someone from the outside into the team’s discussion, you introduce new ideas and fresh eyes, minus any political maneuverings. If anything’s amiss, the new person is more likely to suss it out before you get too far along in the decision-making process.

  1. Make time for risk assessment/mitigation.

Another way to avoid groupthink, while also maintaining momentum, is through holding cross-functional risk assessment/mitigation meetings. During these stand-alone sessions, participants offer up potential risks for projects, decisions, products, etc. Attendees brainstorm potential risks and identify the likelihood and impact of the risk occurring. Then, the team devises a mitigation plan that addresses critical risks to the organization. Along with encouraging challenge and debate, this process often leads to additional benefits for organizations, including greater reliability, organizational learning, and continuous improvement through process enhancements.

  1. Keep your organization comfortable with debate and disagreement.

Issues like groupthink can speak to larger, more insidious problems within an organization’s culture and leadership. You can start to change the culture, one meeting at a time. Openly encourage team members to speak their mind. Commend them for their courage to question the prevailing belief systems. Don’t downplay critique; consider it. Adding an agenda item titled “Challenge and Build” during meetings may help provide that structural permission for open dialogue/debate.

Through our Denison organizational culture survey, we can help you uncover problem areas, like groupthink. We provide a snapshot of your current cultural state and pinpoint any weak areas. Then we help you design a road map for achieving better results.

For help addressing this and other questions you may have about your corporate culture, contact us.

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