First off, I’d like to say that I’m only writing this article because other people have told me that I should. I can’t remember the last time I made an independent decision for myself, and I’m hoping you’re just like me. If you’re the kind of maverick who comes up with original ideas and then tries to execute them, then I’m just not sure we’re going to be able to be friends.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, groupthink is the habit of worrying so much about playing nice with others that the group members themselves end up making unintelligent decisions. In some cases, people refuse to voice objections or concerns out of a greater fear of upsetting the status quo, while in other situations people simply defer decision-making in an effort to get 100% acceptance of an idea before implementing it. Take Blackberry, for instance. The upper management was obviously married to the notion of selling keyboard phones with superior emailing capabilities and an almost complete lack of any entertaining applications, despite the fact that everyone else on the planet has known for several years that the overwhelming majority of smartphone users want a device that is both useful and enjoyable. However, presumably no one at Blackberry wanted to fight hard enough against the entrenched policies so many people were fond of, and so now the company that essentially invented the smartphone is worth about $11. I’m thinking about buying Blackberry and turning one of their factories into a children’s amusement park. I think it would be fun to have a ball pit filled with old Z10s.
But I digress. From a managerial standpoint, groupthink is about as harmful to company health as it’s possible to get. The desire to please others and create a harmonious work environment is certainly well-intentioned, but to do so at the expense of originality and healthy confrontation is the sign of a stagnant, declining company.
There are several reasons why groupthink happens, but two major causes are especially worth noting. First (and most damaging), management develops such an attachment to existing practices that any suggestion of changing those practices becomes a taboo subject. In this situation, there is often an explicit disapproval of any concept that doesn’t follow long-established practices, and that expression often takes the form of sentences like “That’s not how we’ve always done things” or “Don’t rock the boat.” And please, never mind the fact that boats are literally designed for rocking. The point is, shut your mouth. Lower-level employees quickly learn that the best way to stay out of trouble is to keep quiet, and so everyone pretends to agree with whatever decisions are handed down whether or not those decisions are actually intelligent.
The second major cause of groupthink is more benign, and therefore more insidious. Here, the company culture is such that it simply doesn’t expect a lot of innovation. In this scenario, dissent and debate are discouraged not so much because they are controversial but rather because they seem completely unnecessary. Business is good, our customers are happy with what we’re giving them – so why even go to the trouble of making a big deal out of something that isn’t even a current problem? Often these kinds of managers are thoughtful, nurturing, and truly interested in creating happy and respectful working environments. However, the long-term effect is to create an environment in which creativity and independent criticism are simply not considered important qualities. That works fine when everything is going well. But if conditions change – say, disruptive products or an economic recession – suddenly you’re left with a company full of people who have no experience in creative problem-solving.
Based on everything you’ve read, you might assume that I am an opponent of groupthink, but nothing could be further from the truth. After all, without groupthink, how would I have ever been in a position to maybe buy Blackberry and turn one of their factories into an amusement park? Opponents of groupthink often resort to a common argument, one that we all heard as children: “If everybody jumped off the bridge, would you do it too?” At first glance, that seems like a perfectly reasonable scenario to illustrate the absurdity of doing things just because other people have already done them. But as my father likes to point out, if everybody jumped off the bridge, eventually it wouldn’t even be much of a fall. You could just step off that thing, walk back up, and jump back off. Sounds like a lovely afternoon to me.
So please, don’t step out of line. Don’t encourage your employees to share their ideas, don’t voice opinions that others haven’t already mentioned, and do not look for novel solutions to new problems. The mediocrity of your company depends on it.