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Is your business being held back by groupthink?

Posted 6 years ago in Small business by
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If everyone in the room agrees with you, you’re probably all wrong. And the zombies are coming.

When I was a lot younger I used to wonder why large companies regularly brought in management consultants. It seemed an admission of failure. Surely it was an embarrassing black mark against the existing management of the business?

Then I spent some time working in large organizations and discovered one of the reasons: groupthink.


Groupthink is defined as “a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.”

The word has its roots in psychology and sociology, but you can see its effects in workplaces all over the country. I’ve worked in places where the level of groupthink was cult-like in its dogged resistance to reality. The worst was a large government IT project in which the level of flawed groupthink was astounding.

One afternoon I sat down with another consultant and worked out the total reasonable cost for the project. We came out with quite a large sum, but the actual amount spent was 25 times larger. Cost savings could have been made in every department, but nobody wanted to know. Groupthink told them that what they were doing was right. Luckily for them, they didn’t have to explain their decisions to taxpayers.

Groupthink in your business

So why does groupthink happen? And what can you do to prevent it in happening your business?

The first question is easy to answer: it’s because we’re humans. More accurately, it’s because we’re humans with a strong sense of authority and hierarchy.

Most businesses are hierarchical. There’s someone at the top, then a pyramid of control down through the levels to the people at the bottom. This makes it hard for prevailing points of view to be challenged.

Let’s assume people at every level are trying to move upward. Criticizing the ideas and practices of higher level management is not usually the best way to achieve that. Been there, tried that. Believe me, it doesn’t work. Better to keep your head down and produce outstanding work as a team player.

What about people on the same level? They can criticize their colleagues, but it’s a dangerous strategy – it could backfire if they turn out to be wrong. Also, it’s a good way to make enemies. As the old saying goes, be nice to people on the way up because you might meet them again on the way down.

As a result of all this, employees try to avoid challenging the status quo. It’s not that they’re scared, just that they have nothing to gain and potentially a lot to lose. So nothing changes – until the management consultants arrive and shake it all up.

Groupthink can stifle creativity and slowly kill a company. In some circumstances it can even kill people. A friend who flies 747s for a living told me that co-pilots in some societies have to be specially trained. They must learn to question the actions of the pilot, their hierarchical superior. They need to be broken out of their groupthink mindset. Otherwise they wouldn’t intervene even if something went dramatically wrong during a flight.

Overcoming groupthink

Groupthink is unlikely to be so catastrophic in your business, but it could be holding you back. Economies are changing fast, especially where technology is concerned. Some owners are too busy running their businesses to notice that the landscape outside has changed. This is one reason why venture capital investors like to bring in fresh management blood.

It’s easy to get stuck in groupthink, unless you challenge conventional thinking in your staff and yourself. So get out there and see how the business landscape is changing. Meet other business owners and chat to them. Do the same with your customers. You could also build a flatter management hierarchy and allow 360-degree performance reviews. Most importantly, actively encourage new ideas from your staff.

It won’t be easy, because you’ll be fighting against human nature, but it can be done. If all else fails, hire a management consultant. Just make sure it’s a good one – and that you listen to what they have to say.

Now to those zombies. In the film World War Z, the security council of the Israeli government was depicted as having a 10th Man Rule. If nine of the advisors dismissed a potential threat, the tenth was obliged to overrule them and prepare for that threat – in this case, zombies.

Your business may not be facing zombies, but similar tactics will help you keep the dangers of groupthink at bay.

Alex Cruickshank has been a business writer since 1994 and a serial entrepreneur since 1996. He owns Ministry of Prose, a writing agency based in New Zealand.


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