The Perils of Groupthink

Written by on April 20, 2015 in Board Effectiveness with 2 Comments

Black and white photo of carved stone ceiling rosettes from Cluny, France

Groupthink and Boards

Groupthink (Orwellian word!) happens when our very powerful instinct to collaborate, to be part of the group, overrides our independent judgement.  It can happen to anyone.  Did you ever find yourself reflecting, after a meeting, “I wasn’t completely sure about that decision, but I went along because everyone else seemed in favour.  I didn’t want to rock the boat”?  That’s groupthink: group loyalty trumps independent judgement.

Sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?  After all, we want to minimise conflict, to smooth the path, don’t we?  And the tendency to think of boards, like other working groups, as “teams” actually increases the danger.  A board with a dominant member or faction, who generally get their own way, is at extra risk.

What’s so bad about groupthink?  It’s the reason the net good sense of a group is lower than the good sense of any of its members.  It’s the leading reason that boards made up of clever, competent people make stupid, incompetent decisions.  Boards that are prey to groupthink get blindsided, and can act irrationally, because they are not critically reviewing alternative viewpoints and scenarios.  They have isolated themselves from influences beyond their immediate horizon; at the same time, they feed their own illusion of infallibility because, hey, we all see this the same way, right?

Defences against Groupthink

As individual directors, our best defence against groupthink is to be aware, and to cultivate that “EQ” or insight into emotions that allows us to know when we are getting drawn into putting harmony above independent judgement.

Of course, if we disagree just for the sake of it, or to be provocative, we are going to hamper our board’s work.  As always in directorship, there’s a judicious balance to be struck.  See my Eleven Board Derailers and What Makes a Good Director for more on this.

And collectively, a board’s best defence against groupthink is diversity.  Not just gender diversity, important as that is — there are nowhere near enough women on boards — but also diversity of professional background, work experience, training, and culture.

Very importantly, there’s a sensitive job here for the chairman (of either sex).  It’s characteristic of groupthink that the group takes silence to mean agreement.  A good chair will encourage those who are silent in a discussion to speak up and explore any misgivings they may have.  A good chair will also encourage the entire board to stop, review its own discussion, and be sure it has critically explored all the options.  It can even help to follow a structured method such as De Bono’s “six hats” to ensure that the board has explored all the relevant perspectives.

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