Leadership: A Matter of Sustaining or Eliminating Groupthink?
Fighting groupthink is probably just as worthy an endeavor as attaining "buy in." But what are the risks for the leader and his or her subordinates? What has worked for you? What hasn't worked?
One significant theme in responses to this month's column suggested that there is a role for varying degrees of "buy-in" and "groupthink" in effective leadership. The message seems to be that leaders should to some degree foster both, although there was a general rejection of the term "groupthink" in favor of "consensus." As Charles Cullinane put it, "Consensus ensures everybody is going in the same direction, but I feel groupthink ensures everybody is going in the same circle."
Sharika Kaul believes that a CEO needs three types of people: 1) those who "will never agree with the CEO and are always in the minority," 2) those who help "clean up the decision-making process," and 3) "true 'yes men' ... [who] get the job done." Cheryl Price suggests that in a decision-making process, "It all comes down to being an approachable leader." But "once a decision is made ... public criticism of that particular decision should be actively discouraged ... ." As Ina Ferber put it, " it is important to avoid groupthink during a decision-making process ... [integrate] as many views as possible ... and then get the buy in for the execution process." Anshu Vats expressed this view a bit differently when he said, "Groupthink is heavily discouraged in the companies where the leaders lead from behind. ... This style does produce results if done correctly with strong doers at the senior levels of management."
Advice to leaders in formulating decisions was provided by Keith Pinto, who opined that "Encouraging mavericks, risk takers, and soul searching questions is part of the chaos that leaders need to face to find meaning from ambiguity." As John van Wyk said, "It is also the case that ... [the truly successful leader] ... has the courage to hold close even the fiercest critics." Gad Gasaatura suggested the use of the "name optional approach" to encourage contrarians to express views.
On the other hand, several others suggested pointers for those who would provide the contrary views that are so important to an effective decision-making (vs. implementation) process. One was Bob Nemens. As he commented: "While you can never eliminate ego [in a leader you are trying to influence], you can learn to be multilingual in expressing an idea." One anonymous respondent resolved that "If I am not one already, I think I will aspire to be the office fool ..."
All of this suggests that successful leaders need a fine sensitivity for times when various modes of thinking and action are most appropriate: listening and the collection of ideas and contrary opinions in the decision-making process followed by consensus, communication, and group action during the implementation stages. Why is it that leaders often fail to make these distinctions? Is it ego, the inability to assume different roles for different needs, or some other reasons? What do you think?
Leadership is being examined in all its facets these days. An entire issue of the Harvard Business Review was devoted to it last month. Books galore explore the many sides of this phenomenon central to any organization, embodied in people who are, as John Kotter has said, able to produce "extremely useful change."
Recently this discussion has centered around the ability of a leader to discourage subordinates who always say "yes" to her opinions, regardless of their value, by surrounding herself with those who are able to speak out. Lynn Offerman, writing in the HBR, suggests to the CEO that "one simple test of whether you're getting the feedback you need is to count how many employees challenge you at your next meeting."
If leadership is all about fostering useful change, it is a hard, complex task requiring an almost messianic set of beliefs and the ability to communicate them in convincing ways. For a classic example of this, read Robert Caro's prize-winning biography of builder Robert Moses who transformed the cityscape of New York City. Having achieved what we often call "buy in" to a set of ideas on a broad scale, why should we expect a leader to be able to address the downside of buy in, which some have come to regard as "groupthink," the creation of a dynamic in which members of a team only reinforce the leader's judgement, biases, and ego. This is especially true if groupthink may in some ways be a means to a worthy end. In Moses' case, he would brook no contrary ideas in amassing the power needed to fight bureaucracy and red tape while he built parks and bridges that were the envy of the world as well as elevated highways that blighted neighborhoods for generations. He was a master of groupthink. Perhaps he had to be.
Remedies have been suggested. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries suggests the importance of a leader's creating a foil for his ideas, possibly by insuring the development of an "organizational fool," as in the wise fool in King Lear. Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon Products, says that her children provide this kind of feedback for her. Saj-Nicole Joni, in an article in the upcoming issue of HBR, suggests the need for a third opinion offered by someone either psychologically or organizationally shielded from the CEO. It is a role that Jack Welch is striving to play in his post-CEO life.
Fighting groupthink is probably just as worthy an endeavor as attaining buy in. But what are the risks in fighting groupthink for the leader and his subordinates? What's the likelihood that it can delay or destroy an important and useful change effort? What are the risks for the subordinate in dealing with a leader not always able to separate judgements regarding the quality of contrary ideas from those concerning personality traits of the person advancing them? (For example, is one reason why MBAs are sometimes regarded as arrogant the fact that they practice their training and present useful contrary views?) What do your personal experiences tell you about these questions? What has worked for you? What hasn't worked? Why? What do you think?