Management: Avoid yes men

Building consensus at the management level in any corporation or government entity is a difficult task.

New President Barak Obama has assembled a cabinet that is composed of Republicans and previous opponents in the presidential primaries. Former primary opponent Joe Biden is his vice president and his toughest primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, is his Secretary of State.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s use of the term “Team of Rivals” for her description of Lincoln’s cabinet also describes the team Obama has assembled. This is not your typical board of directors or management team. This is not a collection of yes men or yes women, but an assembly of high-powered thinkers, designed to challenge the thought process of everyone in the room and prevent “groupthink”.

First coined in 1952 by William H. Whyte in Fortune Magazine, groupthink was identified as rationalized conformity, an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well. Irving Janis defined it as a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

Groupthink found its way into our daily conversations during the Kennedy administration. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John F. Kennedy sought to avoid groupthink during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. During strategy meetings, he invited outside experts to share their viewpoints, and allowed group members to question them carefully. To break group cohesion, JFK also encouraged group members to discuss possible solutions with trusted members within their separate departments. He even divided the group up into various sub-groups. JFK was deliberately absent from these meetings, to avoid pressing his own opinion. The Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully, thanks in part to these measures and the diplomatic efforts of Robert Kennedy.

Highly cohesive groups like boards of directors and presidential cabinets are much more likely to engage in groupthink. The more cohesive they are, the less likely they are to raise questions that might break the natural cohesion found in these groups. Although Janis sees group cohesion as the most important antecedent to groupthink, he states that it will not invariably lead to groupthink: “It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.”

How would you know if your board is suffering from groupthink? Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of groupthink.

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of disloyalty.
  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members. Silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Groupthink can result in defective decision making. That is, consensus driven decisions are the result of a number of practices of group thinking. Those practices are: incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, failure to examine risks of preferred choice, failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives, poor information search, selection bias in collecting information and the failure to work out contingency plans.

Irving Janis devised seven ways of preventing groupthink:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of critical evaluator. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  4. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  5. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

When selecting both inside and outside board members, in addition to business acumen, leadership abilities and personality characteristics, you need to be sure that you are not selecting mirror images that will reduce conflict in the boardroom.

Organizations hire consultants to play the devil’s advocate and challenge their thinking processes. This intellectual exchange insures that a decision reached by the board or a group of managers has been examined from more than one perspective and the downside risks have been considered and evaluated. Small and medium sized businesses who don’t have outside directors or who don’t utilize consultants are in danger of adopting a groupthink mentality

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