Groupthink and it’s impact on Business, Sustainability and Decisions

Groupthink is the concept of having many people go along in agreement with a decision essentially because, either someone of authority has spoken and others are afraid to contradict their idea, or because in the silence of a discussion, each individual believes that others agree with the “apparent” consensus and don’t want to stir the pot. One other cause of groupthink is that everyone in the room has the same frame of reference for the discussion. In other words, they actually do think alike and make a decision in agreement, even though that decision may be uninformed.

The consequences on a larger scale may be what we experience as a society. We all begin to think alike because no one has challenged our assumptions. Environmentally, this has led to things like Climate Change because we jointly assumed that it was OK to keep going in the direction that we were going. Thankfully, mother nature eventually speak ups and shares her opinions through the impacts that we start seeing on the health of the earth. So the image of our earlier consensus is now, at least, being challenged and other voices are starting to be heard.

Establishing a Consultative Environment that Leads to Better Decisions

It is useful, when establishing any consultative environment, whether in an business or political setting, to build new skills around consultation and expressing differing opinions. Whenever differing opinions are expressed with attachment to the idea, there is potential for conflict and dissention. But it need not lead to this.

When a differing opinion is shared as merely as a different perspective or idea for consideration, rather than the “right idea” vs the “wrong idea”, or “my idea” vs. “your idea”, if it is something that is shared with and owned by the group when it is shared, it need not represent conflict or disagreement, and it can be open for modification by the group. My experience has been that whoever is leading, faciliating or chairing a discussion needs to learn a few fundamental skills about holding the space of “respect for others” and providing the tools and means to help others express their opinions freely. At the same time, there are additional skills the group needs to learn about not re-sharing what has already been said if one is in full agreement.

In a family situation, groupthink can happen and, periodically, leads to bad decisions. More often in a family setting, the more damaging decisions are as a result of disagreement that is voiced loudly in a way that is untrained. Even in a family setting consultation can be made much more effective.

In the corporate or political world, bad decisions which are made as a result of groupthink or poor quality consultation can have serious and expensivie consequences and it is an excellent investment for leadership teams to learn how to consult and make decisions effectively.

Parliamentary political systems often demonstrate a different type of groupthink, (i.e. one party against another). This type of groupthink is equally futile and leads to bad decisions and policy because often the brightest minds in the room are stifled by party lines and party leadership.

In business, billions of dollars are spent on bad decisions that people know are bad decisions but they are unable or unwilling due to group dynamics to share their perspectives.

We can only hope that as businesses and political systems evolve, that the leaders will make training on the essential concepts, skills, attitudes and habits of effective consultation manditory, and that they will invest in creating environments which lead to better long term decisions. Effective leaders are those who have studied these skills, who have effective listening skills, who know how to inquire of their team in ways which encourage contribution and independent thought, and they are aware of the behavioural habits of each participant. They encourage others to freely express and share perspectives.

While most leaders have some of these skills, they also generally benefit from a little coaching and reflective learning. One idea they can use in learning this skill is to record a few meetings and to replay them for the purpose of learning from the dynamics of the consultation rather than focusing on the content.

There is also an organizational and personal coaching perspective which is useful, “no one gets to be wrong”. If that space is held by each member during a discussion, generally there will be a lot more openess and sharing of differing opinions. Sometimes there is need of a coach or faciliator to hold that space.

All the best,

Garth Schmalenberg,

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