When Groups Don’t Think

Collaboration, done right, produces dazzling results. So why is it often disastrous?

Group Think

Image by Dave Cutler / www.davecutlerstudio.com

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When teamwork goes well, it tends to go very well, and throughout history, brilliant results have arisen from collaborations. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ partnership generated 1958’s Porgy and Bess. The Manhattan Project hurtled scientists to the forefront of atomic discovery. Perhaps such shining examples are why we value teamwork so much, in spite of a painful truth: Many collaborations fail, a lot of them spectacularly.

“Strange things start to happen when you put a handful of otherwise intelligent people in a room together,” remarks Alix Stuart in CFO magazine (Nov. 2007). Fruitful dissent evaporates, self-defeating tendencies surge, and corrosive emotions destroy the potential of group work. But there’s no need to groan inwardly the next time your boss announces a group project. Recognizing these human dynamics is half the battle, enabling you to neutralize them the next time you work on a team.

Groupthink—the go along to get along mentality that results in accelerated, false consensus—was vexing collective endeavors long before psychologist Irving Janis popularized the phenomenon in 1972. A sure sign of groupthink is team members getting along too well. Those who might dissent stifle themselves: No one wants to rock the boat, irritate superiors, or lengthen a meeting by disagreeing with the consensus. But a project can be doomed if no one stops to wonder “What if we’re wrong?”

Groupthink has been blamed for everything from the Columbia space shuttle explosion to the debacle at Enron to the war in Iraq, writes Stuart. Team leaders can encourage constructive dissent by playing devil’s advocate and disagreeing with a unanimous decision, prompting a timid voice to pipe up. They also need to shuffle group configurations and agendas to avoid the cliques and entrenched biases that hinder fresh thought.

Individuals need to remember that voicing their viewpoints is crucial for good results. Executives at the e-commerce firm Digital River foster democratic brainstorming by having groups write ideas on unattributed Post-it notes. This way, everyone contributes unique information, and no one knows if an idea came from a senior executive or the new person, preventing “would-be sycophants” from judging an idea according to its source rather than its merit.

Where an idea comes from has all kinds of weird effects on groups. In the early 1970s, scientists at Xerox developed the nascent technologies of personal computing: word processing, the mouse, clickable icons, and more, recounts Lydialyle Gibson in University of Chicago magazine (July-Aug. 2008). The researchers were years ahead of the curve, but Xerox failed to see the value in ideas born within their labs, and so failed to take them to the marketplace. That we know Xerox today as a copier company sums up the rest of that story.

Failure to recognize innovation from within the ranks is a surprisingly common group pitfall. Bias in favor of ideas from afar tends to trump internal solidarity: Executives hire consultants to tell them what their employees have been saying all along; researchers derogate their own innovations while trumpeting similar strides made by rival labs; and companies abandon projects only to revive them once competitors make similar forays (as Xerox did, to no great effect).

In a culture that celebrates individualism and rewards innovation, members of a group are understandably hesitant to cooperate with, even acknowledge, the good ideas of “internal rivals”—that is, their own colleagues. “Learning from an outside competitor can be much less psychologically painful than learning from a colleague who is a direct rival for promotions and other rewards,” behavioral scientist Tanya Menon and her coauthors write in Management Science (Aug. 2006).

We take our cues from outsiders at the expense of internal creativity and faith in our own teams. “You lose your ability to internally generate innovation,” Menon told University of Chicago. “You lose your ability to be a thought leader.”

It sounds almost too simple, but Menon’s research demonstrates that doing even a basic self-affirming exercise—such as listing personal skills and accomplishments before heading into a group meeting—dramatically enhances people’s ability to share the limelight with colleagues.

Such an exercise grounds individuals and restores self-worth, which would be far easier to hang on to if not for envy, a prevalent and “invisible destructive force” in groups, according to psychologist Judith Sills. “Envy is so socially undesirable that we disguise it from ourselves,” she explains in Psychology Today (Sept.-Oct. 2008). If you find that you dislike someone, but can’t quite explain why, if you’re critical of qualities that didn’t bother you before, or if you credit someone else’s success to special privileges, it might be time to look in the mirror.

Guarding against the downfalls of group work is well worth the effort. Groups can be smarter and more innovative than individuals working alone, Stuart writes. People are capable of pushing one another to greater heights. All it takes is coming to the table armed with knowledge of where groups derail. As Sills writes, “You can’t pull a weed unless you can spot it.”