Avoid The Herd

flock of sheep in field under blue sky

Groupthink is a phenomenon where a certain member of a group expresses ideas and opinions that go unchallenged, often to the detriment of the group. Social Psychologist Irving Janis first coined the term in the early 70’s and it’s still a challenge today. Groupthink exists for a variety of reasons. Normally, the group is more obsessed with agreement than considering alternative viewpoints. There’s usually one member of the group who is most popular, persuasive or otherwise dominant.

One of the most infamous examples of Groupthink was the tragic space shuttle accident in 1986. A group of engineers found some faulty parts but were convinced they didn’t need to worry about them and that the negative publicity of cancelling the launch would be too much to overcome. Of course they were wrong, the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after launch killing 7 people.

In less fatal ways, groupthink is prevalent in board rooms, class rooms, juries and it effects frat boys, C-suite members, athletes, politicians and everything in between without prejudice. It’s a human bias problem keeping organizations from optimal decision making and performance.

Here are 4 things you can do to avoid falling victim to group think.

  1. Advocate for Organizational Health – For a challenging view to emerge and ultimately help the team make the best decision, there must be a functional, encouraged even, amount of conflict. The point isn’t to be a contrarian for the sake of arguing, but to have team members feel comfortable sharing a different perspective. Steel sharpens steel.
  2. Incorporate Different Types of Feedback Channels – For product management, if you only or primarily rely on focus groups and client advisory teams, you’re at risk for succumbing to groupthink. There’s nothing wrong with using these two techniques and they can provide value, but make sure you have qualitative, 1-on-1 interviews with clients where groupthink bias is essentially removed. Surveys are another way to avoid this.
  3. Understand Your Team – Even if an organization’s culture encourages alternative ideas, some individuals may not feel comfortable speaking up in a group. Give these individuals time in a 1-on-1 call (whether it’s as their peer or manager) to share these other ideas. The LifeHack article on the topic explained this in more detail.
  4. Stay Open Minded – It can be tempting with deadlines looming to falsely believe you’re on the right path and dismiss the “devil’s advocate” viewpoint. But what matters is outcome, not output and if you do the wrong thing the right way, you’ll most likely have an output met but it won’t deliver on the ultimate objective.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Jim Hightower: “The opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”

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