Hands up who wants to make bad decisions?
No-one, of course. But then, they do still keep getting made. What’s going on?
Individuals slip up – of course they do. But sometimes they’re trapped in an organisational culture where the chances of slipping up are significantly higher. There might be a number of factors in play here, but one of the most important is groupthink: similar people thinking similar thoughts. People grow up in the prevailing culture, they learn its tropes, and they seek to conform because adherence is rewarded. More colloquially: resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.
Why is groupthink so bad? On the surface, it has its merits: it lends itself to corporate coherence, deepens trust within the group and (because it only offers one option) facilitates decisiveness. But that could be corporate coherence around a narrative misaligned with reality; trust only in the ‘in-group’ (and distrust in anyone’s else’s viewpoint); and decisiveness around the wrong proposition.
Groupthink is acted out primarily on that great stage for human interaction, the business meeting. Agendas, slide decks, the choreography emanating from the chair – all can reinforce the notion that there’s a preferred way of thinking to which participants are expected to adhere.
But do not despair, because there is an antidote: reasonable challenge. Getting different, possibly better ideas into the room can be kryptonite for groupthink. And I say reasonable challenge because questioning your boss’s thinking on the grounds that, for example, a Martian invasion is expected next Thursday isn’t reasonable. Unless, of course, you know something I don’t.
Reasonable challenge isn’t necessarily easy to introduce into big, complex organisations with well-established cultures – it’s not so much getting the milk out of the tea, as I described in my recent blog on entropy in organisations, as replacing the milk with a different kind.
You can begin to tackle the problem with structural changes. ‘Shadow boards’, for example, bring the views of a more diverse group of (usually working level) people right into top-level decision-making. This has the advantage of airing views not freighted with the baggage of sectional interests.
You can also exhort people to greater challenge, but to paraphrase, old culture eats new culture for breakfast. It’s good, and indicative of positive change, if leaders use the word ‘challenge’ routinely, but it has to extend beyond lip service. Leaders have to believe in it. Their staff have to believe that they believe in it.
And leaders will only do so if they recognise that challenge isn’t about them personally, but about the issue being discussed. They need to recognise that any single human brain, however elevated its status within the hierarchy, isn’t big enough to know everything. It needs help.
The leader also needs to make it easy for colleagues to offer challenge. They might feel inhibited by, for example, the possibility of being marked down for their dissent in the next staff reporting round. And meetings need to be actively managed to ensure that not just the alphas are heard. The very junior person sitting quietly in the corner might just have the answer to all your problems.
Being a leader means that you’ve probably got some firm ideas about things – the ‘time traveling’ I talked about in my other recent blog. It can be hard to temper that in a meeting situation, but you have to. You need to listen, to give colleagues space to speak up, and to signal this with the right body language and behaviour. Put people at their ease, engage in small talk, encourage a to and fro in the dialogue, ask more junior members of the team to take a lead at different points in the conversation. Pose questions like, ‘am I right on this?’, ‘is there another way of doing this?’, ‘is there a completely different perspective we haven’t tapped into yet?’ or ‘are there other people who ought to be in the room?’
You should be looking for diversity of thought. Alarm bells should ring if you glance round the table and it’s like looking in the mirror. Having the range of protected characteristics represented, with added social mobility and neurodiversity, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve cracked groupthink, but it’s a reasonable indicator that progress is being made. Deference is another warning sign – no half-decent leader wants bovine acquiescence.
Even if the leader is sending out all the right signals, each individual participating in the meeting still has to find ways of navigating its cultural dynamics. The answer lies, to a large degree, in language. Very direct challenge – ‘that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, you idiot’ (I exaggerate for effect) – may well bring out the antibodies. Better to place the challenge within ‘bookends’, polite phrases that gently usher in the thought (‘I totally understand why you might have reached that conclusion, but have you considered…?’) and then give it some chance of sticking beyond the meeting (‘shall we take an action to give the alternative approach a closer look?’).
It also lies in having a well-supported point to make. That doesn’t mean that a ‘gut feeling’ shouldn’t be voiced – a sense that something isn’t right can come from experience and learning, and might be a spur to further inquiry. But better still to have the evidence or analysis you need to underpin the challenge you’re making.
Having a culture of reasonable challenge isn’t about creating an endless debating society; nor is it a guarantee of good decision-making. But it does increase the likelihood of improved decision-making. At the end of the day, a leader might not change their mind, but at least the decision for which they’ll be responsible and accountable will have been based on the best available information and advice.
So if you’re in a leadership role: invite challenge, or risk failure. And if you’re in a supporting role: offer challenge, or risk your quite possibly game-changing perspective not being heard.
PS – the Ministry of Defence’s Guide to Reasonable Challenge, at the back of The Good Operation handbook, isn’t a bad place to start.