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?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

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?

Original Article

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?

    • Deepak Alse
    • System Design and Sustenance Engineer, Wipro Technologies

    Business today thrives on change, and no single rule is applicable to all leadership scenarios.

    • Gad K. Gasaatura
    • Associate Consultant

    One answer to combat the groupthink thing: Invite feedback with anonymity. Socially close groups are particularly susceptible to groupthink. Whether in the U.S. or Uganda, people value relationships more than is often acknowledged.

    Having lived and worked in the U.S. and Europe for more than fifteen years, I know that smiling and nodding to indicate "no objection" or "definitely yes" is not just an African problem. It seems to me that the desire to please the boss is universal. The boss often wants his ego rubbed, nurtured, and reassured. He will pay a premium for whoever does that most convincingly.

    What I have often suggested—and what seems to work for both boss and junior—is to use the "name optional approach" to express views. I use this method to find out from any group of trainees how I did in a workshop presentation. It allows them to remain friends, yet I have the opportunity to learn of my strengths, weaknesses, and missed opportunities.

    • Anshu Vats
    • Business Solutions Executive, EDS

    I think it all depends on the kind of leadership you want in your organization.

    If leaders consider themselves "visionary," they encourage groupthink from the beginning of the lifecycle. This model especially rings true for most software dot-com companies.

    Groupthink is heavily discouraged in the companies where the leaders lead from behind. They take on a facilitator role and encourage the organization to participate and form a common way forward. This style does produce results if done correctly with strong doers at the senior levels of management.

    Jack Welch talks a lot about a third way in his book Jack: Straight from the Gut. The leader takes the initiative but then works hard to establish an environment where further discussions can be held and buy-in achieved from the senior management team.

    Leadership is about being persuasive rather than being a visionary. It is about getting things done; it is about trust and the support of the workforce.

    • Ina Ferber
    • Student, Harvard Business School Class of 2005

    Your article, "Leadership: A Matter of Sustaining or Eliminating Groupthink?" offered me insight into groupthink. The idea of a correlation between "buy in" and "groupthink" is new to me.

    Based on my experience I would like to challenge the idea that there is a contradiction between the avoidance of groupthink and a forceful concentration of team members towards one common goal. I believe that it is important to avoid groupthink during a decision-making process and then get the buy in for the execution process.

    I led the development and implementation of management and personnel development tools at a European company. During the development period I involved the project team and manager from all departments. At that time we encouraged diverse opinions and avoided groupthink. By avoiding groupthink we were actually able to integrate as many different views as possible. I would consider the development of the tool as the decision making process. The company decided on its leadership style.

    During the execution process, the implementation of the personnel development tools, we focused on buy in. At that point in time we created excitement about the tools and combined it with a tight time schedule and reports about successful first implementations at vanguard departments.

    I strongly believe that we got the buy in from managers in all European locations and at all levels of the hierarchy because we encouraged diversity during the decision making process and concentrated on buy in only during the execution.

    • Sharika Kaul

    All written material suggests that leaders need to surround themselves with people who have contrary views, and that leaders should promote and protect the process of "dissect a thought and grow."

    But that need not always be the case. I think a CEO needs people who are true "yes men." These people are not thinkers, they are doers. They get the job done. If a CEO who is trying to bring about changes and, in an extreme case, is rebuilding the company, having "yes men" in your corner helps.

    Of course there is a presumption here that the CEO is sensible and not a crook. This would then lead us to a second set of people who would question everything the CEO would do and pre-approve the thought before it becomes an action and thus clean up the decision-making process.

    Then there is the third group who will never agree with the CEO and are always in a minority. But the third group would wield considerable influence so as to tilt the balance of power against the CEO, thus always keeping the CEO on his or her toes. I think a mix of the three is critical for a CEO's success. Having a mix of the three groups will not only maintain balance in power but also in the CEO's head.

    • Cheryl Price
    • Director of Finance, Samaritans Foundation

    With regard to sustaining or eliminating groupthink, it is a matter of circumstance. It all comes down to being an approachable leader. If subordinates feel comfortable approaching their leader in the knowledge that they will get a fair hearing and that the leader handles criticism well, honest opinions can be expected.

    Some subordinates, however, will never feel comfortable offering the boss criticism, but the thinking leader will know who those people are. As a leader, one should actively seek the opinion of those subordinates who are comfortable being critical, in a setting that will support this comfort level. Having said this, once a decision is made, unless new evidence presents itself, public criticism of that particular decision should be actively discouraged, as this will derail attempts to move forward.

    • Anonymous

    The plethora of books and electronic information available has spawned a new philosophy, leading to almost a book-of-the-month administration. The table of contents of each successive book becomes this month's direction. Instead of encouraging creativity, it becomes the accepted way to do things...groupthink.

    • Charles Cullinane

    Groupthink should not be confused with consensus. I have found that groupthink can lead to fear of change and the attitude of "not invented here," both of which can destroy a company's ability to compete. Consensus ensures everybody is going in the same direction, but I feel groupthink ensures everybody is going in the same circle.

    A true leader listens and then develops a game plan that people will follow. Leaders are open to radical ideas and helpful criticism, but develop a consensus that people will follow. I have seen a lot of groupthink, but it has always led to stagnation. When growth stops, decay begins.

    • Anonymous

    This concept is very applicable to the nonprofit sector as well. Large nonprofits can become just as bureaucratic as government entities or businesses. And the board, comprised of volunteers, often wants to avoid confrontation. Some boards convince themselves that if a viewpoint is put forth by the executive director, it must be true/valuable. The rubber stamp is everywhere.

    There also seems to be a premium on the "new or novel," so there is the impulse in the nonprofit world as well as in business to repackage something to stay competitive.

    I am often reminded of the Emperor's New Clothes. No matter how we spin it—he's naked. Sometimes I think marketing has been the downfall of us all. I see the tail wagging the dog. If I am not one already, I think I will aspire to be the office fool....

    • Anonymous

    Just because you're faced with lemons and apples, you don't necessarily have to make a blended juice at the onset. The negative, challenging people have their place alongside the positive, visionary, yes people—but perhaps not in the same room. It's all energy and it's all good.

    On occasion, I have completely separated my working groups and left them unaware that they are working on the same proposal. Unfettered by the need to defend their ideas or criticisms, they usually produce an incredibly chaotic mix of dead-on work. Sorting, repositioning, and representing the snarl of concepts from one side to the other can truly be a balancing act, but the process itself elicits buy-in by both groups. By the time we arrive at a joint endeavor, groupthink has turned to a positive confirmation of their concepts, not necessarily a reinforcement of my personal desires or ego.

    Sometimes the deadlines cause us to force an artificial buy-in in the rush to produce a completed proposal. One sports commentator has discussed the value of "waiting for the play to develop" and letting others do what they do best to provide the opening for forward movement. It is not a position for the impatient leader or insecure manager.

    • John van Wyk
    • Executive: Sales & Marketing, Barloworld

    The true test of leadership, in my opinion, is the leader's ability to sense the shifts in the organization and mold action accordingly. It is probably the combination of groupthink and robust challenges from the maverick-fringe that create change in business. In my experience, both these elements have resulted in deep and sustained change in the businesses I have observed in my working life. The truly successful leader seems to know when to act in one or the other modality. Typically, it is also the case that he or she has the courage to hold close even the fiercest critics.

    The most damaging CEOs I have encountered are those who have followed this dual path to build a business but have become overwhelmed by their own perceived power. The result? A fractured business that sheds talent, clients, and margins.

    • Keith Pinto
    • Sr. GM—Management Development, GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, Ltd.

    Leadership is about living at the edge, sourcing differentiated strategies, and spinning them off into new businesses or as extensions of the current maturing business. Encouraging mavericks, risk takers, and soul-searching questions is part of the chaos that leaders need to face to find meaning from ambiguity. And the ability to give structure and process to these ideas is invoked by a pay-or-perish symbiotic relationship that these nonconformists need to build on an annual frame. Ultimately, it depends on how the thought translates to a value proposition for the business.

    • Bob Nemens
    • Director, Marketing, Diebold, Incorporated

    If you are a marketer you must translate the benefits of a strategy differently than people in finance, operations, manufacturing, et cetera. Most ideas get lost in translation because they are communicated in a foreign language to the leader you need to influence and they do not address that person's selfish reasons. While you can never eliminate ego, you can learn to be multilingual in expressing an idea. It is a start, because without it there is the danger of putting the other person on the defensive to the point that he or she stops listening. And, the larger the ego, the bigger the risk of reinforcing the negative—being seen as an outsider, not a collaborator.