The Dangers of Group Think

The CEO leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. The meeting was going supremely well. The board of directors had been convinced to acquire a smaller company in a neighboring country that provided the same kind of services as his company. It would enable his company to penetrate the neighboring market much easier by providing access to an existing distributor and client base. The CEO smiled to himself. He had anticipated that it would be difficult to convince the directors who had shown a historical aversion to cross border acquisitions so he had quietly engaged the three usual vocal directors before the meeting and got their buy-in in advance. “Alright then,” the chairlady concluded, “shall we pass a resolution for the CEO to conclude negotiations with Technoco?” Around the room, most of the directors were nodding their heads, eager to bring the meeting to an end as it was late in the afternoon and traffic was already thickening outside. Mary, one of the newer directors on the board, was however fidgeting in her seat and frowning. She had previously worked in that neighbouring country before moving back to Kenya and knew the difficulties faced by Kenyan companies that had tried to penetrate that market. She was also aware of the neighboring government’s policies on labor laws, which created a difficult operating environment. She wanted to speak out about her experience and knowledge, but the mood in the room was buoyant and optimistic about the acquisition with at least three of the directors being quite vociferous in their support of the transaction. The chairlady, who was usually quite intuitive, immediately noticed Mary’s discomfort. “Mary, you look like you have something to say.”

Mary looked around the room, feeling quite uncomfortable with several pairs of eyes staring at her, some of which looked remarkably impatient. “Actually Madame Chair, “ Mary ventured, “I honestly don’t think this is such a good idea. My experience in that neighboring country tells me to exercise some level of caution before making an investment of this magnitude.” The CEO muttered something under his breath, which Mary guessed was less than polite. He leaned forward in his chair, putting his elbows on the table. Mary had come to recognize that move. It meant that he was going to explain something very difficult to someone very ignorant. She braced herself for the condescending explanation that was sure to follow. Around her, the other directors were nodding vigorously at every sentence the CEO said. After all, he had driven the company to 1000% growth in Kenya over the last five years through the careful and systematic execution of the company’s strategic plan. Every new initiative that the board had approved for execution had been successful and the directors were starting to believe that they were not only onto a good thing here, but that their CEO was a visionary who could do no wrong. Mary knew that this board suffered from the dangerous affliction of group think, a phenomenon that often occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position or express an unpopular opinion. Typically the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem solving.

She was at a psychological crossroad. She could either buck the trend and carry on with her point until someone finally listened or she could keep quiet and go with the flow, thereby avoiding a long and windy discussion that would most likely end up with the CEO winning anyway. She looked at the chairlady for guidance, hoping to see a small sign that would encourage her to carry on with her alternative view.

The chairlady stared at her blankly in a deliberate attempt to remain neutral. Mary looked around the room and found a subtle shift in attitudes towards her. There was almost a sense of you-versus-us and an understated urgency to bring the matter to a quick conclusion. “Fine, Madame Chair, I’m sure the transaction will make sense to the company’s overall objectives and we should go ahead and do it,” she caved in.

The concept of group think works well for boards and management teams that believe in consensus building and cohesion, But it is a fatal flaw for an organization that is making critical decisions that need to be analyzed through a comprehensive and rigorous decision making lens. Consensus should be built once all the pros and cons of a decision have been extensively discussed. It is prudent to always appoint a team member to play the role of devil’s advocate for no other reason than to poke holes at any decision being made and essentially make a case for why that decision will fail. The end result of intervention by the devil’s advocate is that a comprehensive review is undertaken of the topic at hand and in some cases an outside expert can also be brought to provide an independent view from that of the project sponsor. The review should end up with clear mitigating steps for implementation in case of the project’s failure. Only then should consensus be built on how the project should be executed and what exit plan should be put in place if the project runs into difficulty.

Two years later, Mary sat at an emergency board meeting that had been called to discuss the Technoco acquisition. Workers had gone on strike and the government of that country supported the workers union obtuse requests. If the company caved in to the demands, costs would escalate and the company would collapse as they would not be able to raise prices in tandem with the rising costs. She looked around the room as directors animatedly discussed the situation, interrogating the CEO as to why he had allowed this situation to arise. No one remembered her quiet, attempted intervention of two years before. She would remind them of her previous advice and, going forward, assert herself regardless of the popular opinion.
Twitter: @carolmusyoka