What is groupthink and how do we beat it?

This article is a must read for those ambitious leaders out there who are dedicated to being exceptional in a world full of conformity and mediocracy.  There are so many negative factors that can jeopardize our ability to lead exceptional teams and right at the top of that list is groupthink.  For many reasons, groupthink is one of the most catastrophic risks that ambitious leaders face in their pursuit of progress and this article will not only define what group think is, but also identify ways to recognize it and share strategies for how exactly to beat it.

So what is “groupthink”?

My simple definition is when a group of people fail to express their individual thoughts and start to think like the rest of the group.  More specifically, groupthink occurs when individuals fail to share their individual thoughts because they don’t want to be the “black sheep” of the group.  They don’t want to be the only person who expresses a contradictory point of view.  That in turn, triggers a ripple effect where everyone in the group fails to express their own thoughts and opinions out of fear of rejection from the rest of the group. This results in mass conformity where everyone shares thoughts and opinions easily accepted by the group.  Make sense?

In today’s world, we see this everywhere.  We see this in politics, in our professional lives and even in our personal lives (like at the dinner table).  People are made to feel like outcasts when their thought process, beliefs, values and ideas do not match those of the people around them so often times, people keep their thoughts to themselves just to blend in with the crowd.

The military is a breeding ground for groupthink because subordinates are expected to follow orders without question. I vividly remember one of my squad leaders (a poor one at that) saying, “You think for yourself only when I tell you to”.  He expected me to respond with a “Yes, Sergeant” to everything he asked without giving it a second thought.

Of course there is a time and place when leaders need to share and idea or provide instruction and trust that their followers will execute. However, this can’t come at the cost of our followers ability to express themselves and their own thoughts.  We can’t discourage original thoughts, creativity and the sharing of valuable perspectives.

The reason why should be obvious. When our followers stop sharing thoughts, ideas and feedback with us as the leader, we have failed our team.

Instead, we should be encouraging our people to step up and take ownership of what we are working towards.  We should be motivating them to invest themselves in producing the best possible ideas and generating the best possible outcomes and that only happens when they know that their input is deeply valued.

Common thought is detrimental to progress because skilled people who are creative and innovative take all of their insightful ideas to the graveyard.  When they stop speaking up because they are afraid of being rejected by the group or shot down by the leader, they just start agreeing with everyone around them so they fit in. And if our best and brightest start taking steps back to blend in with the crowd, we are really screwed as leaders.

Could you imagine if Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Walt Disney were afraid to share their ideas out of fear of rejection?  Could you imagine if they had let poor leaders (even in childhood) convince them to “be like everybody else”?  These are arguably three of the most innovative thinkers of our time and had they not been courageous enough to speak up and voice their thoughts, where would we be today?

Walt Disney’s ideas were rejected by countless producers and his plans for theme parks were denied by hundreds of financers since it was “too extreme”.  Charlie Munger looked Elon Musk in the eyes when sitting across the table from him and told Elon a handful of reasons why Tesla would fail because the developing the technology would require too much risk.  Steve Jobs was fired from Apple (his own company) because the his ideas didn’t fit what the board of directors has envisioned for the company.

Could you imagine if these creative genius’s kept their ideas to themselves out of fear of rejection or to conform to the group?

So, how do we identify if groupthink is present in our teams?

Well for starters, if everyone on your team always agrees with each other, that’s bad.  It might seem like a good thing because it makes conversations easier, but it isn’t. It fosters conformity and decreases the incentive to be creative because people just begin accept the ideas presented to them. We need to encourage discussion and contradicting viewpoints.  Of course sometimes there will be topics that people agree on, but we need to propose at least one contradictory line of thought or we will always just take the first idea presented and significantly undershoot our potential.

Second, if brainstorming with your teams is extremely awkward, that’s a bad sign.  That can be a sign that nobody wants to/ feels comfortable speaking up.  I can assure you that your team members all have ideas, it’s just a matter of whether or not they want to share them…

Finally, if people don’t openly share when they disagree, you have a problem.  Although it may be frustrating, it’s important that we as leaders encourage people to stand up and share when they disagree with something.  It’s also important that we understand why that person disagrees whether this means a discuss can be had with the group or you have a private conversation with that person later on, it’s important that they feel heard or they will fall right into the groupthink trap and stop sharing their own thoughts.

So finally, how do we beat groupthink?

There are three core solutions to battle group think.  First, consider the risk of groupthink when you are building your teams.  It’s important to build a diverse team full of people from different backgrounds, levels of experience, personalities, etc.  This will foster an environment of diversity where people understand from the beginning that the goal is not for them all to be the same.  People should understand that their uniqueness is what made them an attractive member of your team.  We want people who have different experiences and perspectives to help us collaboratively reach out teams potential.  Never in history has common thought achieved greatness by itself.  Encourage uncommon thinking and collaborative effort.

Second be proactive in fostering discussion.  To start, try asking questions about a subject before you share your input as the leader.  Most people are non-confrontational with their leadership so if you share your thoughts before you ask for theirs, the chances are you will receive very limited contradicting feedback.  If the leader goes first, everyone else will follow.  So instead of saying, “This is what I think we should do”. You could try something like, “What does everyone think we should do about ______” and then after you receive input and ideas, share your thoughts.

In conclusion, groupthink is detrimental because it minimizes individuality, creativity and innovation.  It hinders out ability to accomplish exceptional results because it fosters an environment of mediocracy and conformity.  We as leaders are responsible for bringing out the best in our people, in our teams and what we accomplish and we can’t do that if everyone thinks the same way…

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