Recognizing the Dangers of Groupthink

In the classic Hans Christian Andersen story, everyone tells the Emperor what he wants to hear – that his new clothes are beautiful. No one wants to anger the Emperor, so they won’t tell him he’s wearing nothing. It isn’t until a child names the truth that the Emperor learns he’s been fooled by the weavers who were supposed to make him a special set of clothes.

What happened to the Emperor isn’t just the stuff of fairy tales, it’s the real-life experience of many high-level leaders who surround themselves with people who won’t report negative information for fear of repercussions. As leaders rise through the ranks, the less honest feedback they receive. High-level executives can become isolated and not understand the reality of their situation. Such leaders may not walk down the street naked, but lack of information can lead to poor decisions and missed opportunities.

My colleague Bill George and I talked about this question in our conversation for Attune: The Role of Focus in Authentic LeadershipBill shared a first-hand experience with the dangers of groupthink.

“Early in my life, I worked in the U.S. Department of Defense as a civilian in the era of Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life were at the high levels of the Pentagon. But, toward the end, they were walking off the cliff together. They suffered from groupthink. McNamara was so powerful, his team simply reinforced what he was saying. They didn’t take different perspectives. Any good leader needs to have a reliable team who will ask tough questions.”

Avoiding Groupthink

One way a leader can avoid groupthink is by honing your triple focus: yourself, others, and your larger situation.

First, a leader needs to develop self-awareness. It’s important to know your strengths and limitations.

How can you develop that self-awareness? One way to understand ourselves better is to seek honest feedback from trusted peers, friends, and family members. The key is to find people who can hold up an honest mirror and then to be open to what you see in the mirror, warts and all. Often, that means looking for a coach or support group outside of your organization. Such a resources can help you see where your biases limit your ability to take in information that contradicts your opinions.

The good news is that once you’re aware of your limitations, you can work to move beyond them. Tara Bennett-Goleman explains the neuroscience behind developing new habits in her book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits. She describes five key steps to habit change, including familiarizing yourself with the self-defeating habit, being mindful, remembering alternatives, choosing something better, and practicing the new habit often.

Focus on Others        

Along with knowing yourself, you need to really understand the people around you. I call it other focus. Effective leadership depends on being able to tune into people, talk to them in a way they understand, motivate them, influence them, and listen to them.

Sometimes, the best way for a leader to focus on others in a group, to truly hear what they have to say, is to silence yourself. That’s one of the points made by Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie in their December 2014 Harvard Business Reviewarticle, “Making Dumb Groups Smarter.” They said,

“Leaders often promote self-censorship by expressing their own views early, thus discouraging disagreement. Leaders and high-status members can do groups a big service by indicating a willingness and a desire to hear uniquely held information. They can also refuse to take a firm position at the outset and in that way make space for more information to emerge. Many studies have found that members of low-status groups have less influence within deliberating groups (and may self-silence). Leaders who model an open mind and ask for candid opinions can reduce this problem.”

In our conversation for Attune, Bill shared an example of a time when his lack of focus on others stifled his team from saying what was on their minds.

“After a meeting, one of my co-workers asked, ‘Do you think everyone agreed with that decision in the meeting?’ I said, ‘Yeah, they all said yes, we even voted.’

His response was an eye-opener. ‘Well, there were three people backing their managers that were so angry, they could hardly speak to you because you blew over them, and forced them to say yes.’

After some thought I knew he was right. I had to go back, tail between my legs, and say, ‘I’m really sorry. I guess I didn’t hear what you were really saying.’ That allowed me to be open to honest conversation. I learned I need to seek out honest feedback and surround myself with people who have diverse viewpoints.”

The Big Picture

Beyond being aware of yourself and listening closely to the people around you, you need to be able to see the big picture. As Bill realized, one way to do that is to surround yourself with very diverse people, people whose expertise, experience, and worldview complements your own.

Of course, such diversity only is useful if you pay attention to what those different voices say. In a conversation about systems thinking with my colleague Peter Senge, we talked about the importance of developing a culture of mutual respect and appreciation so knowledge can transfer. Competitive coworkers can squash an idea before it even gets off the ground. In a more respectful atmosphere, you and other team members may say, ‘Wow! That's really interesting. How do you do that?’

Think about your own situation.

  • What steps do you take to tune in to the big picture of your situation?
  • How well do you listen to the differing perspectives in your organization and outside of it?
  • How do you let those around you know that you value information that may differ from the majority viewpoint?

It’s Your Choice

Leaders without skillful self-awareness, other focus, and attention to their larger situation leave themselves open to being like the Emperor striding down the street naked. With well-tuned triple focus, you can be sure that you and your organization avoid the pitfalls of groupthink.