“The Road Not Taken” is a poem written by Robert Frost in 1916,perhaps one of the most widely recognized poems of modern times. It was highlighted in the inspiring 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, with the late Robin Williams.
Dead Poets Society is a remarkable film filled with great advice, sage wisdom and healthy perspective. In one scene Professor Keating (Williams) brings his students to a courtyard and lines them up. He asks three of the students to “take a stroll” around the square together. At first the students make their way in relaxed, uncoordinated fashion, participating with amusement. Soon they begin to march in unison, with Professor Keating chanting a familiar military drill (“Left… Left/Right/Left…”). As they march the student spectators begin clapping in rhythm to cheer them on. With all the students now acting in concert, Professor Keating halts the trudge and begins the lesson.
The Professor asks the students if they noticed how each of the marchers started off at their own pace and with their own style. He points out the unique flair of each student walker. He then highlights the danger associated with conformity. When those standing in line begin to laugh – as if to doubt they would ever fall into conformity — he asks why they were so quick to clap together.
From a leadership perspective, this idea of guarding against blind conformity – or “groupthink” – is extremely important and an often overlooked aspect of team dynamics. Left unattended, it can lead to an unhealthy culture, dwindling participation and resentment toward management.
Dictionary.com defines groupthink as “the lack of individual creativity, or of a sense of personal responsibility, that is sometimes characteristic of group interaction.”
Many may believe that groupthink is an esoteric concept that doesn’t affect the people or organization they belong to, but you can find groupthink lurking in almost every organization and leaders should view it as a cancer that must get removed.
It is the responsibility of company leaders – especially the “thought” leaders – to foster a culture that discourages groupthink and encourages employees to think independently, offer out-of-the-box ideas and present different points-of-view with knowledge that demonstrating such professional bravery is not only encouraged, but rewarded.
This month one of the biggest companies in the world, Accenture, will abandon traditional means of evaluating employees (the dreaded yearly performance review) in favor of a system that provides employees feedback on an ongoing basis. This effort supports a culture that Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme is fostering around individual achievement. Nanterme said in a Washington Post interview, “We’re going to evaluate you in your role, not vis à vis someone else who might work in Washington, who might work in Bangalore. It’s irrelevant. It should be about you.”
Perhaps comedian George Carlin said it best, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” In order to combat groupthink you must recognize the symptoms and take pains to counteract them. Some of the most prominent symptoms are:
Employees censor themselves, holding back any thoughts, opinions or advice that seems counter to the group. Some have their dissent written on their faces in meetings, but when promoted to speak up, they remain silent or simply agree with the general consensus.
Employees incorrectly believe that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; they view the silence of others as agreement and remain reluctant to offer a unique opinion.
Employees pressure other employees who seem to go against the perceived way of doing things and spread blame (usually of management) for the group’s failings or mistakes.
Employees rationalize warning signs and fail to expand thinking beyond normal parameters, despite reasonable evidence to examine alternatives. There’s a persistent problem and the same solutions are tried over and over again despite knowledge they don’t work.
A leader must combat groupthink and support a culture that fosters a focus on individual achievement, including:
Encouraging viewpoints that are contrary to your own
Admitting when you are wrong and demonstrate acceptance of someone who makes a mistake or admits a mistake
Encouraging different teams that never interact act to work together more often
Setting up peer reviews with those completely disconnected from a solution or a problem; perhaps going outside the normal boundaries of technical and non-technical groups.
Professor Keating recognized the challenge associated with standing up against a group. He said, “We all have the need for acceptance, but you must trust your beliefs are unique.” Employees will only secure this trust in themselves when they trust those charting the course of the organization.
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