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Why Mavericks Matter

A group that strives for harmony and consensus in its major decisions faces a dilemma. On one hand, cohesion appears beneficial. Surely it should be positive to operate in a warm, clubby atmosphere, guided by a unified esprit de corps. The problem arises when such cohesion suffocates critical thinking, leading the cozy club toward suboptimal decisions. In other words, you need some devil’s advocates to argue the other side of the case.

In a corporate arena where team players and conformists are encouraged, the opinions of loners and dissenters may be squashed. Soon groupthink takes root.

Don’t upset the apple cart

Groupthink has prevailed since cave dwellers learned to grunt approval. The term for the concept, however, was only formally coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte and popularized 20 years later by Irving Janis. The phenomenon describes a group dynamic where similarities and shared attitudes among members suppress disagreement. What should function as a well-oiled machine instead falters when the group elevates consensus above candid communication for making decisions.

It is normal that most people hate to be the odd one out. It is uncomfortable to leave the security of the majority. It can be tempting to self-censor to fit in. As the Japanese say, the nail that stands up gets hammered down.

Dangers result from conformity, though, as the cases below remind us. Groupthinkers soon come to believe they are invulnerable, smarter or morally superior. It is easy for them to be overoptimistic, to blindly enter destructive paths and to take on unwarranted risk. Ignoring the possibility of bad outcomes means lacking preparation for them. The larger the group, the more likely it is to follow groupthink. Why? A ratio of, say, 3 out of 5 people on one side is less compelling than, say, 23 out of 25.

Managers who are paying attention may discern the symptoms:

  • Close-knit teams.
  • Stress under time pressure.
  • Homogeneity.
  • Overconfidence.
  • Submission to authority.
  • Closed leadership style.
  • Stereotyping dissenters as inept and/or ostracizing them.
  • Emphasis on loyalty.
  • Domination by outspoken members.
  • Resistance against new ideas.

Sometimes a collective fallacy called an Abilene paradox arises — nobody on the team even likes an idea, but all hesitate to object, believing everyone else likes it.

Groupthink catastrophes

Some famous examples of disastrous groupthinking illustrate the perils in the workplace as well as the wider world.

  • Hundreds of communications had been intercepted weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack but were disregarded. The U.S. was more concerned with its citizens living in Hawaii.
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger crashed in 73 seconds, killing seven aboard. The craft’s O-ring seals failed, although NASA engineers had known the faulty parts were vulnerable.
  • The insolvency of iconic Swissair has been blamed on the unanimity in its directors’ backgrounds and values. Nicknamed the “flying bank,” the airline expanded in the 1990s by buying smaller airlines for access to the European market, but became crushed by debt loads.
  • Kodak refused to adopt digital technology, fearing for its film processing business. (Ironically, it had developed the first digital camera.)
  • In earlier eras, escalation of the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Watergate scandal were all driven in part by groupthink.

Most recently, cancel culture has wreaked havoc on lives and careers. Businesses and society both lose out on wasted talent.

How to overcome groupthink

Managers can take concrete steps to promote a culture of openness less susceptible to groupthink. The principle is to welcome alternative perspectives and foster constructive arguments on both sides. Look to unbiased sources of information from beyond the team.

Give extra voice to quiet team members, literally. Ask for a show of hands rather than a louder expression. Consider permitting anonymous comments. Breaking into smaller teams may help, too.

Create diversity by mixing personalities and backgrounds. Note, for example, that the diversity of the UK Bletchley Park team has been credited with the team’s success in breaking the German cipher code in World War II. Everyone should have a clear role. Leaders might sometimes take a back seat, not attending every meeting and not necessarily speaking first.

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