Great minds may think alike, but that can be a problem
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Great minds may think alike, but that can be a problem

Every smart leader recognizes that groupthink can be a problem. You know, when everybody on your team agrees that a plan is great and should be pursued — and everybody turns out to be wrong when the project falls flat.

But what kind of problem exactly is groupthink? Is it, as its name implies, a thinking problem — a problem that can somehow be solved by encouraging more critical, honest thinking?

Actually, no. Despite the name, groupthink is actually a social and political problem tied to the issue of status within the group.

Punishing dissenters

How does this issue play out? Well, nobody in a group wants to be marginalized, to be considered of less importance. But the thing is, people who disagree with the conventional wisdom are often seen as disruptive and get punished by being marginalized – even if what they’re saying is true and important. Meanwhile, studies show that those who repeat and repackage conventional wisdom are seen as more competent and knowledgeable.

Also, social relationships often matter more than results when it comes to winning promotions and raises. In cohesive organizations, you don’t get ahead by being right. You get ahead by being agreeable.

For team leaders, that means you can’t overcome groupthink simply by telling your people to be open, honest or critical. You need to disrupt the politics of consensus by creating structures and processes that force people to disagree.

Dialectics and devilry

To see how, let’s start with a research study that examined decision making among managers.

The study focused on two decision-making techniques designed to create conflict: devil’s advocacy and dialectical inquiry. A devil’s advocate argues against a certain point of view, usually the majority opinion. In dialectical inquiry, different groups argue different positions based on the same set of facts. For example, one group might look at a problem and argue that it should be solved with technology, while another group argues that it should be solved through better communication.

In the study, three middle management teams were asked to solve a business problem — one with dialectical inquiry, another with devil’s advocacy, and the third with a consensus-seeking approach. Afterwards, a panel of senior managers used a five-point scale to evaluate the quality of each group’s recommendations, without knowing which group had created which proposals. The average scores for dialectical inquiry and devil’s advocacy were high – 4.34 and 4.29. But for the non-conflict consensus group, the quality score was only 3.22.

Conflict clearly created a better outcome. However, the study demonstrated that when you use conflict-centric techniques, you may have some fence-mending to do afterwards.

Mending fences

When the researchers asked members of each group whether they supported the ultimate recommendations, buy-in was lower in the adversarial groups. That’s not surprising. Adversarial approaches create winners and losers. And losing threatens your status in the group. So, it’s harder for the “losers” to support the winning argument.

The findings suggest that conflict-creating techniques take a toll on individuals and the group as a whole. So you must do something to reinforce the status of those who argued the “losing” side.

To improve your team’s decision making with adversarial techniques, consider these recommendations:

  1. First, explain to the team why you’re taking this approach – namely, because research shows that conflict results in better decisions. Acknowledge that it’s hard to disagree with colleagues whom you respect, which is why you need a formal process.
  2. Assign people to defend or challenge assumptions and recommendations. That gives them political cover within the group. Challenges aren’t personal; people are simply playing an assigned role.
  3. Moderate, but don’t judge. Once people sniff out which side the boss favors, everyone will rally around it.
  4. Close with consensus. Bring the entire group together at the end to evaluate the different arguments and agree on a course of action.
  5. After the decision is made, help the “losers” regain their status. Praise them for their willingness to debate opposing views and engage in conflict over ideas rather than over personalities. And show how their efforts made the final decision better.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “How to Head Off Groupthink. ” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Jamieson, J. P., Valdesolo, P., & Peters, B. J. (2014). Sympathy for the devil? The physiological and psychological effects of being an agent (and target) of dissent during intragroup conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 221-227.

Schweiger, D. M., Sandberg, W. R., & Rechner, P. L. (1989). Experiential effects of dialectical inquiry, devil’s advocacy and consensus approaches to strategic decision making. Academy of Management Journal, 32(4), 745-772.

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