We like to align our opinions with others’ in an attempt to keep the peace and prevent conflict. But when business leaders prioritize agreement over discussion, they risk their teams falling into a trap known as groupthink.
You’re 8. A kid is bullied at recess and others are laughing, but out of trepidation for being chosen as the next target, you keep quiet.
You’re 15. You don’t understand something in class, but refrain from raising your hand for clarification out of worry that your classmates will think you’re stupid.
You’re 33. Your boss proposes a strategic idea for the firm. You have concerns, but your colleagues have all already echoed their agreement, so you convince yourself it’s you, and nod accordingly. Three months later the implementation fails. Someone finally mentions they had doubts from the very beginning. Suddenly the rest of the team also had doubts from the very beginning.
There’s a common thread here that we find difficult to unravel: fear. Delivering a minority opinion is a scary thing, regardless of age or social setting. The decision to dissent from a crowd and threaten its apparent harmony is one of bravery—and one of leadership.
The allure of the crowd
It’s easy to seek invisibility in a collective, visible space. And it’s comfortable—a crowd is inviting, safe. If everyone in the crowd supports the ideas that come from it, then maybe they’re all good. Then maybe we should too. And maybe we should keep any opposing thoughts to ourselves to let what’s good continue to be good.
But agreement doesn’t equate to progress. When all individuals in the group fail to challenge the group, they create an echo chamber where new ideas are swallowed before they’re presented and viewpoints are reinforced if they’re already shared. This psychological phenomenon is called groupthink.
Psychologist Irving Janis coined the term almost 50 years ago, in 1971.
By definition, groupthink occurs “when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.”
The innate desire to conform has existed as long as we have. We want to fit in, and we’re fearful of what happens when we don’t. But power structures that enable rather than challenge the occurrence, serve only to limit the group’s potential, even if intentions are good.
Dancing on your own
From the child at recess to the working professional, we see groupthink culture everywhere. Before continuing, take a moment to watch this video of a guy dancing at a park. It’ll make you smile. And think.
We see the progression of a movement in three minutes, and within those three minutes, we see both acts of groupthink defiance and textbook examples of it. Aside from the dancing queen, the narrator points out an undervalued form of leadership: being the first follower. It takes guts to follow someone or something that hasn’t yet been socially approved.
“Notice how the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore, it’s about them, plural,” says the narrator. When he follows, the original dancer employs a lateral leadership structure rather than a pyramidal one. They’re on the same foot, and little by little, dancers join the pack until they outnumber those sitting on the grass.
And then the groupthink commences. “There’s no reason not to join now; they won’t stand out, they won’t be ridiculed, and they will be part of the in-crowd if they hurry.” Individuals must now join the new normal—the dancing group—to avoid being part of the out-crowd. And now, a movement is born, but while the initial dancer will be credited for it, it was the bravery of the first couple of followers that gave the movement real wheels. What lessons can businesses take from the leadership of a dancing guy?
Deterring groupthink culture in business
Corporate structures continue to evolve according to the priorities of the job seeker market. A lot of the change seen has been led by the influx of the millennial generation into the workplace and employers adapting to modernized career expectations.
Leadership structures that weigh the value of ideas by nothing more than the professional rank of their owners are falling behind the curve. Truly effective leaders manage not only downward, but sideways and up the chain. According to research by McKinsey, “complex modern organizations benefit when people engage with their peers across functional and business-unit boundaries to bring a range of perspectives and drive change and innovation.” The dancing guy succeeded because all were welcomed as equals.
Management structures are critical in the workplace, but an idea should never be discarded solely based on an employee’s position. Companies and managers have the responsibility to create open environments that encourage all forms of ideation and expression—even those that go against the grain.
Humility is a fundamental leadership requirement. Growth is built out of open communication, not echo chambers. Modern leaders must understand that continual support of their ideas without challenge from the group may very likely indicate that groupthink culture is lurking—and must be nipped in the bud.
Eddie Carrillo is from San Diego, California. He got his bachelor’s degree in economics from UC San Diego and is now pursuing the Master in Digital Marketing at HST. He’s a marathon runner, a writer, and spends a lot of time listening to music. Connect with him on Instagram, LinkedIn, or via email.