I spend most of my time helping leaders build high performing teams, and the process of doing some discovery with a new inquiry sometimes leads to interesting revelations. Some of my prospects frankly see no need for our assistance because their teams “are working very well”. This is by far the most polite way of saying, “Please go away,” that I usually encounter, so I appreciate the civility.
Ironically, what they say to justify their position of collaborative bliss are some of the most concerning red flags I am trained to spot:
“We are a collegial organization and rarely find ourselves in conflict.”
“We have a strong culture here, and everyone is on board with our direction and approach.”
“Each one of our team members is heard, respected, and everyone gets a vote. No problems here.”
Well, we need to talk. All of those statements cry out for a team intervention because teams that agree on everything are pointless. Teams that do not encourage debate and conflict are building moats around their ideas, not bridges to new ones. Team leaders who view collegiality and unanimous affirmation of strategy as an asset are missing the point of why they are leading a team in the first place.
Most of us have heard of the concept of “groupthink”. Groupthink applies to people with similar backgrounds, motives, and insular perspectives who arrive at irrational or ineffective decisions. The term implies that each person comes to the given decision in a natural way and all voice the decision in unison, sign off on it, and send it out the door.
But groupthink is more than the simple act of everyone backing the same idea or decision. In 1952, urbanologist William Whyte said that rationalized conformity is the real issue within organizations making large-scale decisions about their future. A group may use a thoughtful, academic, data-backed process to arrive at the “right” decision. However, this is an illusion of their own creation if that decision, and the process to reach it, was constrained and influenced by the desire to conform within established cultural norms. This practice has been justified through a flawed process, hampered by what researcher Irving Janis defined as groupthink’s antecedents: high group cohesiveness, structural faults within the group, and stressful situation context.
Here are some ways to combat groupthink:
- Perform team diagnostics to assess the real feelings about culture, productivity, conflict resolution, and other key performance indicators. The assessments should be anonymous, and the leader and team members should be tested separately.
- Compare and contrast results of the assessments. Where is the disconnect? Are there two (or more) distinct sides? Why is this not showing up in meetings?
- Create a team charter that specifically encourages conflict and norms that make team meetings a safe place to do so.
- Establish a Tenth Man Rule (or Devil’s Advocate) role. This person is designed to poke holes in arguments and argue AGAINST the team’s decisions. Rotate this role periodically to avoid permanent labels being affixed to any one person.
- Diversify your team members. If you have too many people from the same background or perspective, of course they all agree with each other. If there are duplicates of the same type of person, consider whether they are a redundant member of the team.
Groupthink destroys art and innovation by driving away those who would introduce new ideas. At the very least, it silences the majority from future creative input. Groupthink provides a false comfort of agreement under a nice warm blanket of precedent and past success. And, that trait spreads like wildfire.
It’s time to change your mindset about conflict. Let go of the idea that all conflict is destructive, and embrace the idea that productive conflict creates value. If you think beyond the trite clichés, it’s obvious: Collaborating is unnecessary if you agree on everything.