Yes Men – Ego Massage, Sycophancy, Groupthink
By Vikram Karve
Tradition has it that conflict is bad; it is something to be avoided.
The culture of many organizations implies explicitly or implicitly that conflict should be suppressed and eliminated. It is common for managers to perceive intra-organizational conflict as being dysfunctional for the achievement of organizational goals. Most of us still cling to the idea that good managers resolve conflict.
Current thinking disputes this view. In the absence of conflicting opinions, harmonious tranquil work groups are prone to becoming static, apathetic and unresponsive to pressures for change and innovation. They also risk the danger of becoming so self-satisfied, that dissenting views – which may offer important alternative information – are totally shut out. In short, they fall victims to a syndrome called “GROUPTHINK”
In a study of public policy decision fiascos, I.L Janis identified “GROUPTHINK” as a major cause of poor decision making. As he describes it, ‘groupthink’ occurs when decision makers who work closely together develop a high degree of solidarity that clouds their vision, leading them to suppress conflicting views and negative feelings about proposals, consciously or unconsciously.
A manifestation of the groupthink phenomenon is the staggering irrationality which can beset the thinking of the otherwise highly competent, intelligent, conscientious individuals when they begin acting as a group or team.
EFFECT AND SYMPTOMS OF GROUPTHINK
The net effect on the group is that it overestimates its power and morality, it creates pressures for uniformity and conformance, and its members become close-minded, living in ivory towers. Some manifestations are the illusions of invulnerability and the encouragement to take great risks and to ignore the ethical or moral aspects of their decisions and actions.
This author has witnessed close-mindedness on the part of several managers which then permeated their teams. One project manager took this to the extreme and in effect defined his environment as consisting of two kinds of people, either “friends” or “enemies” – The “you are either for me or you are against me” syndrome.
The friends were people who completely agreed with his favoured solutions and supported his project. All others were enemies.
Soon his entire project team was echoing similar sentiments having fallen victim to “GROUPTHINK”, resulting in unbending positions, heated arguments and subsequent lack of respect for anyone who disagreed with them; the ultimate consequences can easily be guessed.
The symptoms of groupthink include:
(i) An illusion of invulnerability that becomes shared by most members of the group.
(ii) Collective attempts to ignore or rationalize away items of information which might otherwise lead the group to reconsider shaky but cherished assumptions.
(iii) An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, thus enabling members to overlook the ethical consequences of their decisions.
(iv) Stereotyping the dissenters as either too evil for negotiation or too stupid and feeble to merit consideration.
(v) A shared illusion of unanimity in a majority viewpoint, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent.
(vi) Self-appointed “mind-guards” to protect the group from adverse information that might shatter complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decision.
Not very surprisingly it has been suggested that individuals most susceptible to groupthink will tend to be people fearful of disapproval and rejection.
Conversely, an outspoken individualist who freely airs his views and opinions, if trapped in a groupthink situation, runs the risk of being ejected by his colleagues if he fails to hold his tongue.
THE DOMINANT LEADER
Firstly, because the CEO [or the “Boss”] dispenses all favours, his biggest problem is to avoid being treated like God. Secondly, the “Boss” must avoid thinking that he is God.
Indeed, in many organizations, it is not easy to contradict or argue too vigorously with the boss.
Even when managers feel that they know more than a superior, they may suppress doubts because of career considerations.
Fear, respect for authority, and even admiration may make sceptics hesitate when confronted with a confident CEO or dominating superior. This is less of a problem if the leader acts in the organization’s interests, possesses requisite soft skills, and has strong ethics and cognitive capabilities to make decisions.
However, if a leader does not force serious questioning, he or she will sometimes make mistakes and errors of judgement. Colleagues will become “yes-men”, and groupthink will take over decision making. And the dominant CEO may not discover his or her mistakes because fearful employees withhold information.
What can lower-level managers do about the boss who has lost touch with reality and seems to be driving the organization in the wrong direction?
One can adopt three different strategies:
(i) “Exit” (Leave the organization)
(ii) “Voice” (attempt to force changes from within)
(ii) “Loyalty” (accept things the way they are)
Each individual can evaluate the risks and benefits of each strategy.
However, if the organization is really on the wrong track, true loyalty requires an attempt to communicate one’s reservations and concerns to the leader.
How can a confident, independent CEO avoid the pitfalls and temptations of absolute power? The obvious (but difficult) answer is to make sure that power is never absolute, and surround oneself with other confident, independent people, and encourage dissension and debate on every decision.
In his autobiography ‘A Soldier’s Story’ General ON Bradley has exemplified this aspect in the decision-making style of General George C Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army in World War II, a dominant leader who was instrumental in the Allied Victory owing to his resolute management of the entire war effort. “Gentlemen, I am disappointed in you. You haven’t yet disagreed with a single decision I have made,” he told his staff after one week in office. “When you carry a paper in here, I want you to give me every reason you can think of as to why I should not approve it. If, in spite of your objections, my decision is still to go ahead, then I’ll know I am right.”
Rather than search for views that might reinforce his own, a CEO should seek contrary opinions to avoid groupthink. Some suggest using devil’s advocates for all major decisions by assigning some individuals in all groups and teams to argue against the dominant view.
This is a “groupthink” situation in which individuals or groups low in the hierarchy are powerful enough to do what they want, even when contrary to organizational objectives. Such power may be based on specialized expertise or privileged access to information. Parallel power can lead to groupthink in two ways.
Firstly, senior managers may accept ideas from lower-level managers that are not necessarily in the organizational interest, either because they have insufficient information to ask the right questions, or because opposition would not seem legitimate.
Secondly, top managers may make decisions without all the necessary information because subordinates do not provide it due to vested interests arising from misplaced loyalties to a limited function, department or team, rather than to the organization as a whole.
Such situations can be mitigated by ensuring that managers rotate between different units and positions.
When everyone in power instinctively shares the same opinion on an issue, the wise manager should be wary. Natural unanimity groupthink results in an inward-looking organization detached from its environment.
Escape from this predicament almost certainly requires a fresh perspective that can come only from outside, by hiring new managers or appointing outside consultants.
A CEO may lay overemphasis on staff – line cooperation in the belief that the easiest way to ensure implementation is to recommend only those actions that the line managers agree with. But this is not necessarily useful to an organization and may lead to mutual admiration and, ultimately, ‘natural unanimity groupthink’.
The effectiveness of staff – line dichotomy depends on maintaining a certain tension between the staff and the line managers. When the tension disappears, the staff may not be doing its job.
The key element in any strategy for avoiding groupthink is to instil checks and balances into the system. Formally, this can be achieved through cross-functional teams, staff advisers, external consultants, or procedures like “devil’s advocacy“.
Informally, managers must learn to tolerate dissidence, criticism, contrary opinions, discussion, brainstorming and debate and encourage their colleagues to express doubts about proposals. Propositions from various parts of the organization need to be treated transparently, equitably, and consistently, to avoid groupthink.
In a nutshell, for effective decision making, steer clear of yes-men, ego-massage, sycophancy and groupthink.
VIKRAM KARVE Copyright © Vikram Karve 2009 Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Vikram Karve, 52, educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU and The Lawrence School Lovedale, is an Electronics and Communications Engineer by profession, a Teacher by vocation, a Creative Writer by inclination and a Foodie by passion.
An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles in magazines and journals for many years before the advent of blogging. His delicious foodie blogs have been compiled in a book “Appetite for a Stroll”.
Vikram lives in Pune with his family and pet Doberman girl Sherry, with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.
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