Groupthink is when everyone in a group thinks alike, and consensus is valued more than independent or creative thinking.
Groupthink is a frequent symptom of a homogenous, highly cohesive group, that is so concerned with maintaining unanimity and a uniform outward front that they frequently fail to critically test, analyze, or fully evaluate all available options.
Groupthinkers often see themselves under siege or under attack, justifying their lemming-like behavior (if they are even aware of it) as necessary to create the unity required to overcome those opposed to their noble and laudable goals. Opponents are often stereotyped, frequently perceived as misguided, wrong, stupid, or even evil, thus justifying extreme efforts to triumph.
The dangers of high-level governmental groupthink came to mind when I read a recent New York Times article on the ouster of four-star Admiral William Fallon.
Admiral Fallon was kicked out of the military for his blunt talk and for the unforgivable sin of publicly “favoring diplomacy over force in Iran,” as well as greater troop withdrawals from Iraq. His other transgressions include being “criticized by conservatives for cozying up to China” and having the temerity to favor “dialogue and patience, not war, with Iran.”
The strongest leaders encourage dissent and value diversity of thought and sincerely wish to understand why intelligent people disagree with them. If voices such as Adm. Fallon’s had been listened to earlier, the current quagmire may have been avoided. The message is clear: Independent thinking is a career killer.
Whether it be from your kids, your spouse, or your co-workers, the minute you make it clear that you punish independent thinking, you will lose its benefits.
Either they will passively leave you with their thoughts and passions, enthusiasm and energy going underground often to surface elsewhere, perhaps as quiet resentment—for feelings buried alive never die—or they will actively leave you, taking their talents elsewhere.
You may legitimately request that disagreements and alternative points of view be aired with respect and diplomacy and that they be kept behind closed doors (this may have been part of Admiral Fallon’s problem), or even that once a decision is made, dissent should cease in the name of teamwork, unless and until material and new facts come to light.
Creating framework and a process for debate, dissent, and decision making can be very productive. Always remember, as a leader, you stifle debate at your own risk.
How open are you to new ideas, to ideas you disagree with? Do you try to understand WHY someone is disagreeing with you? What perspective or experiences lead them to their point of view? Rate yourself on an openness scale of 1 to 7. How would your spouse rate you? Your children? Your co-workers?