How to stop groupthink in the office

Leaders should ensure that their team members do more than just blindly follow

Improve decision-making by fostering a culture that welcomes dissent and accountability.

Success is all about making better decisions than your competition. But as all companies rely on collective decision-making to some extent, business leaders should be on the lookout for negative group dynamics that can prevent their teams from making the best choices.
But how can you prevent groupthink from leading otherwise sensible individuals to make bad decisions? Here are some tips.

FIGHT THE URGE TO CONFORM

We’ve all experienced the group pressure to conform – even against our best judgement. In business, this often materialises itself as a tendency to silence dissent, and risks stamping out creativity and innovation – as well as the ability to think critically and problem solve.
The extent to which this can happen was demonstrated in the famous Asch Conformity Experiments of the 1950s. In over 70 per cent of his subjects, psychologist Solomon Asch found that the majority followed the recommendation of an external source, regardless of whether it was correct.
One way that firms can minimise this behaviour is by ensuring that teams are diverse. As Bain & Company’s Paul Rogers and Todd Senturia noted in a 2013 blog, “people from different functions or with different backgrounds may help to counter conformity and group polarisation”. Another approach is to insist that the high-ranking people on a team be the last to express their judgements, so other people have the opportunity to present their points of view.

BE OPEN TO DISSENT

Businesses depend on employees acting with a certain degree of consistency and predictability, but this shouldn’t be taken to the extreme.
Rogers and Senturia give the example of an aviation incident from 1977, when a KLM plane attempted to take off from a Tenerife airport while a Pan Am aircraft was still on the runway. After conducting an investigation, the authorities found that the pilot had proceeded without clearance, as a result of communication problems – but other crew members also failed to challenge his decision. The official report on the incident cited the “captain was always right” effect as a principal cause.
To avoid these costly mistakes, companies should make speaking out a common practice. This might mean providing a forum for direct communication with senior management. “Those who disagree with an action but are afraid to say so can then use back channels to voice their concern,” say Rogers and Senturia.

ENCOURAGE ACCOUNTABILITY

Social psychologists have long known that people are less likely to act decisively if they can transfer the responsibility to someone else. In business environments, this translates into “social loafing”, a term that describes how individuals will reduce the effort they put into a task if they’re working within a group.
“If you believe all your hard work will result in a valued outcome (bonus, recognition, or pride) to you and the group, you will do all you can to achieve your goal,” says Nicola Lipkin in her book What Keeps Leaders Up at Night.
“If, on the other hand, you think your work will only add up to one-sixth of a desired result, go unnoticed, or contribute to a seemingly senseless group goal, you will not work so hard and may be on your way to becoming a social loafer,” she adds.
As with the other examples, the most important change companies can adopt is linking decision-making to the roles of specific individuals, and have a system to hold them accountable for their actions.

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