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How to break through Groupthink

When teams working towards a group vision are effectively led, innovation and productivity can soar to levels far beyond the sum of individual achievements. However, there can be a dangerous downside to working in a team: groupthink. In this article, leadership coach John Williams highlights the very real dangers of groupthink and, conversely, why preserving your own independent thinking is crucial when working within a group.

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Apr 26, 2022

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6 mins read

As human beings, we are coded for connection. Just the thought of being separated from our herd, our loved ones or even our colleagues, by differing from a group conclusion can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response, leading to groupthink and the associated disasters. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can deliver structured independent thinking through clear roles and responsibilities and finding ways to make having a divergent view safe.  

Disasters like the Bhopal gas explosion in 1984, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the collapse of Enron in 2001, the 2007 Subprime Mortgage crisis, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, to name just a few, share certain commonalities. Firstly, each was a preventable catastrophe resulting from human error. Secondly, each disaster was followed by a number of inquiries and documentaries, resulting in multiple lengthy documents and hours of video coverage. Preventable catastrophes invariably spark endless debate on what management should or should not have done. The discussion always appears to include issues like negligent or avaricious management, how maintenance was delayed due to budget cuts, and how the workers circumnavigated the system for the sake of expediency or because they were under pressure to perform. 

History teaches us, but we rarely learn from it 

In every one of the cases above, investigations have been able to identify that the disaster need not have happened; they were entirely preventable. And yet the aftermath was utterly tragic. Lives were lost, the environment was destroyed, and innocent people lost their livelihoods, homes, friends and loved ones. The burning question is, why do these disasters continue to happen when thorough investigations result in long lists of actions designed to prevent them? Why don’t we learn from them to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself? 

For example, why did BP not learn from their oil refinery explosion in Texas that killed fifteen people five years before their Deepwater Horizon oil spill? The answer is poor communication predicated on a lack of trust. That lack of trust led to a failure of courage, resulting in misinformation being created and passed on. Consequently, the people who could have averted these disasters lacked awareness of the gravity of the situation. Had they been aware of the facts and acted on them, these disasters would never have occurred. Ironically, BP sold their Texas Refinery in 2011 to raise money to pay compensation following the Deepwater Horizon disaster!

Is it easier to go with the flow than question it?

Each disaster highlighted was the result of deception, willful blindness, or fear of being disliked. They could all have been avoided had somebody found the courage to speak the truth and/or do what they were being paid to do. Union Carbide knew there were concerns about safety at the plant in Bhopal as early as 1976. The Exxon Valdez grounding could have been avoided if sufficient crew had shared the workload. Had Arthur Andersen’s audit team had the courage to hold Enron’s executives to account, the damage could at least have been limited. Suppose Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, had not been wilfully blind to exploding house prices and fraudulent mortgages. In that case, the Global Financial Crisis of 2009 might have been avoided. The common factor in all of this is humans’ inability or unwillingness to face and deal with reality for fear of being isolated.

In 2005, Gregory Berns et al. completed and published a study looking into brain activity when subjects were deciding whether or not to comply with a group decision that was clearly incorrect. They wanted to determine whether different parts of the brain lit up when the subject was changing their opinion to go along with something (compliance) versus when they stood their ground (defiance). Using MRI technology, they discovered biological markers that indicated acting independently of the group was threatening, whereas conformity was processed as the logical conclusion. They concluded that nonconformity makes an individual feel potential separation and unsafe. From this research, we can conclude that human beings are predisposed to groupthink as opposed to feeling free to think and do as we see fit. 

Structured independent thinking

We must learn to think independently and find the courage to question the paradigm or be disliked. Vulnerability, one of thirty-one Aspects of Being identified in the Being Framework™, is key to giving us access to all of these actions. Our brains tell us thinking independently carries risk. Being prepared to stand against groupthink makes us vulnerable in the dictionary sense, open to attack, to being wounded and, in this case, doing so deliberately.    

Let’s consider an example. Nurses are neither immune to groupthink nor invulnerable, just very accountable for every action they take. If a nurse allows a doctor's mistake in prescribing an action to affect their patient, both their registration and the doctors’ are on the line. Registered Nurses are expected to practise as independent professionals, accountable to their patients and their medical outcomes, not the doctors. Consequently, they are ethically and professionally obliged to question every instruction before complying and acting. My wife is a Registered Nurse, and she assures me this responsibility can weigh heavily. Doctors are not shy in pointing out who is the better qualified and why they’re right. Conversely, they are incredibly grateful when the nurse identifies an error and saves a patient from harm while also protecting their reputation. 

There is one key difference between the hospital and the boardroom. In the hospital, the human at risk is right there in front of you. You have a personal real-life connection with them, and the effect of your action or inaction is immediate. However, when it comes to the boardroom, humans potentially at risk can be half a world away. Consequently, you may never meet them or their families, and the results of your decisions may not become apparent until years later. As outlined, those consequences can be just as devastating as a poor decision made in a hospital setting, potentially worse because they affect a larger number of people.   That's why, when making group decisions, individual responsibility for the outcomes must be paramount. Going along with the flow for the sake of personal safety or comfort is inexcusable. If you are in the boardroom and don't feel pushback from others, perhaps you haven't asked the difficult questions that will allow the cold wind of reality to cool the hype around the table.  

The ability to stand alone and calmly speak the truth is the gift of vulnerability. Deliberately seeking to differ from the group to offer a unique perspective takes courage, and courage comes from being able to be with vulnerability. Generally speaking, we are not good at standing out in a group, but thinking independently is crucial. If your team reaches consensus easily, beware! It’s time to appoint a devil's advocate or bring in a professional third party, such as a well-qualified coach, to ask the hard questions they won’t. It’s also time to reflect on where you overtly or unintentionally stifle debate and independent thinking. No matter which approach you use, it’s vital that every member of your team finds their voice to ask the difficult questions and share their truths when working in a group.

Self ImprovementIntegrityVulnerabilityProductivity

John Williams

About The Author

John's skills lay in ensuring you are operating at your peak so you can honour the commitment you’ve made to yourself and Be the leader you were born to be. Leaving school at 17, he went straight into the workforce. By 23, he was a General Manager. He climbed to the top of his profession as a senior manager in a billion dollar, multinational trading company where he simultaneously led projects in Europe, Asia, America and back in his home in Australia. In his 40’s, he earned an EMBA, studied negotiation at Harvard Business School, and gained a Professional Certificate in Arbitration. He is a son, husband, father, step father and grandfather who for over 30 years has been studying what makes some people successful while others are stuck in ever decreasing loops. What he has discovered is that we need to go beyond what we’re ‘doing’ and look at who we are ‘Being’.

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