Human beings are social creatures. For all that we put individualism on a pedestal in the modern world, there is no escaping the fact that our social instincts and behaviours have evolved to a level of complexity unrivalled in the rest of the animal kingdom.
This is by and large a good thing. The way we communicate, collaborate and empathise with one another has allowed us to create great civilisations, nations and empires which, in purely biological terms, have ensured human existence is an unprecedented success. It is no coincidence that as we increasingly talk of a ‘global community’ connected by digital technology and rapid modes of transportation, the human population continues to grow and grow and grow.
Society is built on looking out for one another, and it literally breeds success.
But all of this also has its downsides. I will leave you to fill those in with your own pet peeves about society and globalisation and whatnot. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the socio-psychological phenomenon known as Groupthink, and why from a business perspective it can have some pretty undesirable consequences.
The need to belong
Groupthink essentially stems from our desire as social creatures to conform and belong. This is something hardwired into us, and from an evolutionary perspective plays an important role. For a group dynamic to work, you can’t have people expressing their individuality all the time, fighting and arguing over how things should be done, acting according to their own agenda with little regard for others. Social creatures have to be predisposed to get along and agree.
On the flipside, it means that people have a tendency to suppress their own opinions, ideas and desires in group situations in favour of going with the consensus. Where this becomes problematic is that it can lead to uncritical acceptance of ideas and a lack of leadership. Even if deep down an individual knows that a particular course of action is the wrong one to take, they will keep quiet, either because they don’t want to upset the applecart or because they assume they must be wrong, that the wisdom of the group knows best.
This describes the twin aspects that define Groupthink – the desire to conform, and a kind of over-zealous trust in collective wisdom. Groups that display its traits characteristically rush to accept the first reasonable idea put forward because a strong desire to all agree on something, and then fiercely defend their shared viewpoint no matter what. Who cares what others might say? As long as our little group stays together and shares the bind of consensus, our deep-seated need to belong is fulfilled, and we can happily ignore all other influencing factors.
Downfall of the yes men
Corporate history is littered with examples where the dismal failure of a company can be attributed to symptoms of Groupthink afflicting their executive and management teams. One of the classic examples is the collapse of SwissAir, whose senior team steadfastly maintained the company was virtually invulnerable financially, despite very obvious signs that that wasn’t the case. You wonder if a similar phenomenon was involved in the collapse this year of Carillion.
Other examples on an even bigger scale include the banking crisis of 2008, where investment traders across numerous institutions displayed astonishing hubris gambling billions on risky ventures in the apparent belief that they couldn’t lose. At a similar time, the US automotive industry also went into a dramatic decline as manufacturers continued to churn out the huge SUVs they’d relied on for decades, despite clear signs that consumers were showing a preference for smaller, more economical and sustainable models from places like Japan and Germany. US automobile executives seemed to believe they knew best when it came to predicting market demand.
What these examples share in common is a paucity at a senior level in organisations of dissenting voices prepared to challenge the status quo. Or, if there were any, they were shouted down by the majority, another symptom of Groupthink. When a business or even an entire industry takes an obvious wrong turn, this can be fatal.
Smug, back-slapping camaraderie which, when we strip it back, is all about fulfilling our need to feel part of a group, does not lead to success in business. We need people who insist on cold objectivity, we need people who are prepared to go against the grain, we need innovators and disruptors. Ignore the individual voices in your business at your peril, they may just be what keeps you on the right path.