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  • Caissa Public Strategy

Groupthink Could Destroy Your Business

Do you know what stops people from speaking up at meetings? And when people do speak up with ideas that go against the grain, what stops all of us from pausing and considering that we may be wrong, or at least that we should take some time to consider their idea? Our dumb old lizard brain — that’s what stops us.

The lizard brain is best considered as part of our subconscious, which is designed to protect us based on eons of hereditary learning. In short, the lizard brain is designed to protect our ego and keep us safe. The copious amount of research that has been conducted into exploring the lizard brain, and what’s created it, is well beyond what we should get into for purposes of this lesson. But it’s enough to say that it does exist, and it stops us from exploring ways that we could be wrong. Now, back in the caveman times, the biggest issue was safety — physical safety from threats that existed in the world around us. Today, we’re less exposed to physical threats and more exposed to being blind to changes in the world around us, at least with regard to our business decisions. Fundamentally, while the lizard brain is needed to keep us safe from physical harm, it all too often gets in the way of good business judgment.

So, how do we control the lizard brain to make better decisions in business? First, we have to recognize the ways our lizard brain controls us. Second, introducing concepts like gameology will help us to naturally reduce the potentially negative affects the lizard brain can cause.

Let us first delve into ways to recognize the lizard brain inaction. Because after all, recognizing when it’s occurring is the first step to dealing with it.

GROUPTHINK — and its destructive nature.

I think we can all agree that great leaders are great communicators. But I bet we have different opinions on the best ways to communicate in a manner to influence others. The truth is, people can communicate effectively in all sorts of ways — some quiet and patient, others forceful and loud. The manner of communications can vary greatly, but what all great communicators do have in common is their ability to push down their own bias and egos and focus on the mission at hand, thereby exposing what they may be missing. All too often, however, we can all fall into one of the most noticeable traps of seeking information, which only validates our own beliefs versus checking to see if we are indeed correct. One of the greatest culprits that bring down businesses and stop them from being open to exploring new ideas is groupthink.

If everyone agrees with the loudest person in the room or the leader, because they either want to “go along to get along” or simply agree to ensure no one gets upset, the business is falling into the trap of groupthink. Groupthink is best defined as the “practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.”

The key problem with groupthink stems from the lack of responsibility. Basically, no one wants to speak up, because if the idea is attacked, destroyed or discredited, they are afraid of looking like the fool. So, it’s best to keep their creative ideas, that in truth could be game changers, to themselves.

Think about it in terms of risk. If the entire group agrees, I’m safe. If I know the answer and I speak up, I could be challenged. And while I’m sure my idea would help the team, I’m not 100% positive, so I better just sit here and agree with the group.

Groupthink isn’t our faults; it’s based on thousands of years of conditioning. We all want to be accepted by our peers. Even during our teenage years, our most rebellious stage, we have a strong desire to conform to a group.

There are many examples of companies that were unwilling to consider they may be vulnerable to failure. Take the leadership of Blockbuster or Kmart, giants in their respective industries, that refused to accept that they could go under. And of course, now we know they turned a blind eye to new competitors entering the marketplace. The leaders refused to listen to ideas that would expose them to a brutal truth — they were not ready. The leaders would rather go down with the ship than admit they were failing.

Irving Janis was the foremost expert in recognizing groupthink in his classic 1972 study, “Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes,” which focused on the psychological mechanism behind foreign policy decisions, such as the Pearl Harbor attack, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Janis identified negative “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability lead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.

  2. Unquestioned beliefs lead members to ignore possible moral problems and ignore the consequences of individual and group actions.

  3. Rationalizing prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.

  4. Stereotyping leads members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the group’s ideas.

  5. Self-censorship causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.

  6. “Mindguards” act as self-appointed censors to hide problematic information from the group.

  7. Illusions of unanimity lead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.

  8. Direct pressure to conform is often placed on members who pose questions, and those who question the group are often seen as disloyal or traitorous.

I think many of us understand the real issue is that since groupthink occurs subconsciously, it’s very difficult to overcome.

Of all the studies and papers that I have reviewed over the years, people could often define the psychological issues that occur because of groupthink, but all too often don’t have an answer for how to cure it. But don’t worry there is an actual method, a process that if you implement it with your teams can minimize the negative effects of groupthink — gameology!

Stay tuned for the next post in this series on gameology.

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