Breaking away from business conformity

Dissent and disruption, seemingly negative terms, can both be critical in driving change across businesses, forcing them to question how they operate, create products and go to market. But human nature dictates that recognizing the positives from these actions is not always easy. As Dr. Rob Yeung, Director at leadership consulting firm Talentspace, explains, it is usually much easier to conform and defer to received wisdom.

“Psychologists have known for decades about a phenomenon called ‘groupthink.’ When people in a group are keen to be seen to be supportive of each other, they may end up taking decisions that they might, individually, actually disagree with,” says Dr. Yeung.

“For example, if a chief executive says that the clear decision is to do X, everyone else might also verbalize their support while holding deep reservations about the course of action.” It is a common problem, and one that very few leaders recognize and address. US President John F.

Kennedy, for instance, made it a habit to leave a discussion before the end, to allow his trusted (but often belligerent) advisors privacy to thrash out the issues independent of his influence. The key to avoiding the groupthink trap is to set the rules and parameters around which such discussions take place. In other words, to recognize different points of view, or perhaps even reward them.

“Senior people may feel that it is obvious that everyone should feel free to speak up, but that’s not how less senior people may feel,” says Dr. Yeung. “Without a senior person emphasizing that everyone has the right to speak up, no matter how different their opinion, people may feel it’s simply not their job to speak out, even if they might have important information to contribute.”

Beyond setting discussion parameters, there is a much more insidious problem, and one that’s difficult to overcome. Recruitment within a business often sees people with similar backgrounds, skill sets, and, therefore, opinions, hired. Diversity in the workplace is not just about ethnicity, gender or age, but also about different personality sets.

“If you, as a leader, are a confident, risktaking person, then it can be easy to recruit a team of people who are just like you. But, of course, the downside to that might be that they also tend to reach the same conclusions as you – even when you’re wrong,” explains Dr. Yeung.

Again, Kennedy had learned from his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, who famously recruited a “team of rivals” to tackle the intractable conflicts of Civil War America. Lincoln had sufficient confidence and humility to understand instinctively that a diverse set of personalities working toward the same goal could – with some skilful guidance – deliver great results.

“Hiring people for a range of skills and personalities can help to keep a healthy level of debate going on within the team.”

What other methods can be followed to encourage different views, and have them recognized?

Lynn R. Offermann, Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology in the Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication at George Washington University, recently suggested three important steps to take:

  • Keep visions and values front and center – it’s much easier to get sidetracked when you’re unclear about what the main track is.
  • Make sure people disagree – remember that most of us form opinions too quickly and give them up too slowly.
  • Cultivate “truth tellers” – make sure there are people in your world you can trust to tell you what you need to hear, no matter how unpopular or unpalatable it is.

Other strategies include finding key staff who will pick up feedback from junior staff; and telling the truth to the lower echelons – and asking them for help in solving company problems.

The article was written by:

  • Christian Doherty

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