I often recall an incident where I won a bet as to which candidate would be successful in a competition for the role of senior director. To be truthful, I have to admit that my rationale was very non-scientific. In fact, I based my decision on dress because all the men in the meeting room including the candidate had identical shoes; brown shoes with a tassel. Sure enough, the tassel laden candidate won the job.
Silly as it may seem, this was my greatest lesson in that old adage of "like begets like." And, I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Frankly, this situation isn’t unusual, it’s simply a fact of how organizational culture works. Managers want to select a candidate that fits into their culture and who may well have similar thinking patterns. So, you could also say that when this happens, it is a form of "groupthink."
However, the classic definition of groupthink suggests there may be a more dangerous element to this concept. That’s because "groupthink" occurs when a group of people or team applies the same thinking strategy to such an extent they appear to be one. When this happens, team members lose their ability to be creative and may become so focused on ensuring membership in their tight leadership group that they refuse to challenge any recommendations put forward in a discussion. The result is that critical evaluation in decision-making is lacking because no one has the courage to speak up.
While most leaders choose candidates for specific skills that bolster the power of the team, there are still some leaders that surround themselves with teammates who are more followers than anything else. In spite of the fact these individuals may have good ideas, they’ll rarely if ever provide honest feedback because they know and fear repercussions from their senior leader. More than likely they’ve seen other colleagues fall out of favour and leave the organization and they don’t want this to happen to them.
Groupthink, sometimes also known as the "bandwagon bias" creates a sense of comfort knowing that most teammates think like each other. You can count on these colleagues and because no one ever voices a dissenting opinion, decision-making feels good because decisions appear to be unanimous.
However, the danger of groupthink/bandwagon bias not only lurks everywhere, it is a trap that has led to some well-known and historic bad decision-making and huge public failures. One example is the Y2K issue in 1999. Doomsayers predicted that computers might crash instead of rolling over to the year 2000. No matter that naysayers who knew the facts disagreed, the controversy caused people to panic. They stocked up on food and water, took money out of the bank, and bought backup generators for extra security.
So, it feels strange to sit here today as we experience the COVID-19 pandemic. It has so many similarities to the Y2K fiasco. For instance, the COVID-19 fear drove people to raid the stores of toilet paper. Why toilet paper, we’ll never know but that’s what happened. People have since stocked up on food and water and now have three months’ worth of food in their freezer just in case.
And at the same time, we are also seeing a good example of the phenomenon of naysayers and doomsayers at work. For instance, our neighbouring U.S. president and his followers are trying to create a groupthink and bandwagon effect by denying the dangers of COVID-19. They use the tool as a political tactic to get people back out and active in society. Scientists and health care professionals on the other hand are pushing the facts. This is a contest being played out right before our eyes.
As well, the ongoing public relations conflict regarding the pandemic crisis is a good example of groupthink versus decision-making with facts. Thankfully, facts appear to be winning the day. However, while COVID-19 is a larger scale issue, group think and bandwagon bias occurs every day in our work world and we must pay attention to its dangers. The following suggestions can help you to avoid this closed way of thinking and decision making.
Know it when you see it
Recognizing groupthink is a special talent but one that can be learned once you recognize the signs. Watch out for discussions that seem to avoid controversy and risk, listen for someone trying to play devil’s advocate only to be shut down. Watch out for a lack of critical information and diverse opinions that limit decision-making. Pay attention to participants who appear to have a blind commitment to doing things a certain way and then drown out any different perspectives. Raise your red flag whenever discussions veer away from thoughtful and deliberate considerations. Speak up.
Engage in self-awareness
Everybody has a personal bias but rarely do individuals stop and assess just what their biases are. Not only that but their problem-solving methodology often does not consider looking at alternatives and/or focusing on how a decision might impact others. As well, leaders that are not very self-aware often put their own ideas first thus giving an impression they are quite firm in their views. They fail to listen and shut down new ideas and alternative ideas and/or solutions.
Build a diverse team
Depending on the nature of the issue under discussion, it is wise to include people with different perspectives and perhaps different disciplines, ages, cultures and length of tenure. Take time to assess how each might contribute based on their learning, personality and thinking styles. Balance the team with individuals who are comfortable with open ended discussions with those who are more inquisitive and enjoy risk raising and debating issues. Balance this with individuals who are good at bringing all thoughts together toward a conclusion.
Scrutinize your data
Yes, facts and data are very important but decision-makers need to check out the facts being presented. That’s because there is often bias in these reports, after all participants are trying to prove their point of view and will look for data to help make their case. Take time to inquire as to who did the research and what their connection is to the decisions needed to be made. Misleading data creates insights that are hard to challenge and overcome.
Making a decision in a hurry and/or when under the gun due to a crisis, often leads to decisions that are made too quickly without an assessment of all the facts and big picture circumstances. Pay attention to the group dynamics and the impact of any lead influencers. Be sure to engage all the group participants so that there is a healthy debate. Seek more data and more time if necessary, otherwise your decision may cause more harm than good.
Groupthink and bandwagon bias is more common in the workplace than one might realize. Unfortunately, this "all-for-one" approach to decision-making squashes individual creativity and prevents healthy debate. What’s happening in your workplace?