How to Guard Against Groupthink
If you’ve ever gone out to dinner with a large group of friends, you know how difficult decisions can be. What type of food? How much to spend? Should you get a bottle of wine?
So when an association board or executive group quickly and easily reach consensus on a position, without taking the time to discuss the issue thoroughly, it should raise some alarms. They may be engaging in groupthink.
Groupthink makes it appear as though a meeting is running smoothly, with everyone in accord. Yet what’s often happening is a form of self-censorship that takes place when the desire for consensus overrides the desire to challenge positions, present alternatives or express unpopular opinions.
It can result in some bad decisions.
In the Boardroom
Board meetings are perfect breeding grounds for groupthink. After all, healthy boards experience a sense of team and cohesion, and they are often comprised of strong leaders.
Yet without appropriate dissent, these elements can prevent boards from exercising their fiduciary responsibility, which includes weighing the strategic impact of their decisions. Often it starts when the chair or another strong leader voices an opinion early in the discussion, which ultimately goes unchallenged.
Fortunately, if you understand the prime causes, there are many techniques that can be used to protect against such thinking.
It begins with creating a culture in which disagreement and diverse opinions are valued. Likewise, encouraging an atmosphere of open inquiry and dialogue are important protections. And there are more.
Here are some of the best practices that I have seen used over the years to prevent boards from falling into lock step prematurely.
Create Awareness. Make sure everyone on the board has an understanding and awareness of the causes and consequences of groupthink. This is a good topic to discuss at an annual board retreat or orientation.
Challenge Assumptions. Encourage board members to get in the practice of challenging their assumptions and the assumptions of others.
Encourage Conflict. With practice, the board’s level of comfort with conflict will increase.
Consider Implications. Engage in an open dialogue about the risks and consequences of the alternatives attached to every decision. Don’t just focus on the positives.
Assign Critical Evaluators. At the beginning of the dialogue, assign everyone on the board as a critical evaluator. This puts critical thinking at the forefront and creates an immediate awareness of groupthink.
Appoint a Devil’s Advocate. Ask someone to play the role of Devil’s Advocate for each issue, standing in opposition to the majority.
Recruit Loyal Opposition. Prior to the board meeting, appoint people to provide loyal opposition. Provide them with background information that will prepare them to argue the side of the issue you want them to support. If a recommendation is being made, the loyal opposition argues against it. If options are being provided, you may want to appoint someone to argue each side of each option.
Reexamine Rejected Alternatives. Before a final decision is adopted, go back and reexamine the alternatives that were rejected.
Solicit Expert Opinions. Bring in an expert who knows the facts. Without introducing opinion, the expert can introduce facts into the conversation. The expert, not being part of the group, will not be impacted by groupthink. Instead, the expert, through the introduction of facts, will act as a critical thinking catalyst.
Manage the Agenda. Make sure ample time is provided to discuss issues. Put the big issues at the beginning of the agenda, so they can be discussed when the board members are not tired or rushed to leave.
Use Subgroups or Breakouts. Break the board into subgroups or breakouts to discuss issues–and make sure they don’t fall victim to groupthink, using these techniques.
Develop Leadership. As part of leadership development training, board chairpersons should be made aware of their potential impact on the board. They should have an understanding of what causes groupthink and what techniques they can use to protect against it.
Value Impartiality. Chairpersons should refrain from expressing their opinions about any preferred outcome, especially at the beginning of the dialogue. It is important that the chair and other leaders appear impartial during discussions.
Encourage Input. Chairpersons should encourage members to provide input, challenge ideas and present objections. Literally ask for opposing views. Reward the input without making any judgment on the contribution.
Robert Nelson is a Certified Association Executive with more than 25 years of experience in a not-for-profit setting. He is the former president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, and now heads Nelson Strategic Consulting.