Avoid The Ugly Grip Of Groupthink

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Beware when a group assumes we know everything we need to know.

Why?

Not long ago big US banks and other financial institutions sold risky derivatives. They were high-risk sub-prime mortgages divided into investment “opportunities.” After the economic meltdown they created, a salesman was asked who would want to buy these. He replied: “Idiots.”

History shows very smart people discard clear signals about value and risk. In the desire for a big return, investors chose to emphasize what could support their choice; they ignored evidence. It blossomed into self-deception and then spread among peers. This is groupthink. It is dangerous because the focus is on protecting an unfounded treasured opinion. This ensures shared blind spots and ultimately generates bad decisions. In contrast, a healthy team provides multiple perspectives in candid, independent contributions. When information flows freely – it is more likely good decisions are made.

Because it’s effective and predictable, groupthink is consciously engineered. Too often it happens in crucial personnel selection and civic cheerleading that obfuscates challenges or accountability. A classic example was the decision to invade Iraq based on imaginary “weapons of mass destruction.” Sexism and racism rely on groupthink, too. They are efforts to protect a position that become habitual and are normalized.

Groupthink can happen in any situation where decision-makers are insulated. One or several things occur to feed it. The group is fooled by unreliable people, there’s failure to ask provoking questions and data is ignored (or skewed).The risks of insulation underscores the value of transparency. Because self-deception is so common, consciously steering past shared blind spots is vital in managing for results.

We can disarm the grim implications of groupthink by these tactics:

• Ask others to think about their thinking (meta-cognition),

• Spotlight what might get buried by bias, indifference or suppression,

• Assure quality information from multiple methods,

• Actively seek diverse as well as contrary opinion, and

• Surface assumptions.

Lisa Wyatt, Ed.D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillips Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See: http://www.pwkinc.com

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