In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly
, author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes that if you’re like most people, you’ve had the experience of biting your tongue in a meeting: “You sit there, say nothing, and nod along to proposals.”
You don’t want to be the naysayer. Besides, you might not be sure exactly why you disagree, whereas the others are unanimous.
As Dobelli points out, when each person thinks and acts like this, it can lead to groupthink: otherwise smart people make reckless decisions because everyone aligns their opinions with the supposed consensus. Plans and proposals are passed that each individual member would have rejected if no peer pressure existed.
As Dobelli points out, when groupthink leads to negative outcomes, it’s usually because everyone in the group shares the following three illusions:
1. A belief in invincibility: This sounds like, “If both our leader and the group are confident that the plan will work, then luck will be on our side.”
2. Perceived unanimity: No one wants to destroy team unity. If others are of the same opinion, then any dissenting views must be wrong.
3. Fear of exclusion: In our evolutionary past, expressing reservations and being excluded from the group meant death. So each person has a strong urge to remain in the group’s favor.
Dobelli cites the defunct airline Swissair as an example of groupthink gone awry in the business world. A team of highly-paid consultants rallied around the former CEO and, bolstered by the euphoria of past successes, they developed a high-risk expansion strategy. The team built up such a strong consensus that even rational reservations were suppressed, which led to the company’s collapse.
To guard against groupthink, Dobelli suggests that whenever you find yourself in a unanimous group, you must question tacit assumptions and speak your mind – even if your team doesn’t like it.
And if you’re the leader of a group, appoint someone to act as devil’s advocate: “She will not be the most popular member of the team, but she might be the most important.”