Social scientists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’, which is the occurrence of a ‘collective mind’ established, it seems, when any group convenes. It is pervasive, it happens very rapidly, and is separate from the individual views of the group members. It will be familiar to anyone who has endured company meetings, team sessions, committees or the inside of a boardroom.
The term was coined by research psychologist Irving Janis, in his 1972 book Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.
In some situations groupthink can be used to advantage. Therapists deploy it to establish group norms, and achieve behavioural adjustment among addicts and other sufferers; experienced chairs exploit it to impose sometimes unpopular decisions.
However, there are many situations where groupthink can be counterproductive. Brainstorming sessions often fail because a group of individually bright people can only generate mediocre ideas, or a project team gets bogged down on an apparently simple task.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario is in the boardroom, where many companies make inexplicably poor decisions, often to the detriment of the business. Why did Kodak fail to take the lead on digital photography (even though they’d developed all the technology in-house)? How did the Detroit auto industry lose so much ground to foreign competitors? Why did the music industry fail for so long to react to the inevitable changes in the market?
So what can be done to remedy this common problem? Recent research by Heidrick & Struggles, published in HR Magazine, highlights the issue and shows that many businesses are aware of its relevance, demonstrating through the results of a large study that ‘diversity of thought’ is among the most important within a list of six aims among leading businesses. Based on a sample of more than 230 senior board members and data from the top 400 publicly listed companies across 15 European countries, the study identified six characteristics of dynamic governance each board should develop, with ‘diversity of thought’ named as highly important by participants. Some 97% of those surveyed said having the right balance of skills, knowledge and experience to constructively challenge senior management was important for board effectiveness. However, only four-fifths believed they met this aim.
How can diversity be embedded effectively to overcome the insidious effects of groupthink? Keith Sawyer, in his seminal book Group Genius, makes some pertinent observations. He argues that productive thinking, whether creative idea generation or achieving better decisions, can be expedited by groups, provided certain conditions are met. From his list of key factors, these are the essentials, relevant for every business:
- First of all he distinguishes between tasks best handled by individuals, and those where the amount or complex of information is too much for one individual to handle (he calls them ‘additive’ groups).
- If a group is required, it should be no bigger than necessary, and – here is the key – it should be diverse, composed of different disciplines and experience.
- He also advocates the use of experienced facilitators, whose role is to expedite the group flow, and not get bogged down or diverted.
As Sawyer says: “If group members are too familiar with each other, interaction is no longer challenging, and group flow fades away. Only by introducing diversity can we avoid the groupthink that results from too much conformity.”