The Problem With Group Mind

How power, silence, and conformity lead to bad outcomes in business.

One of the enduring myths in business management circles is that groups are a great source of creativity. However, this is counter to what researchers have found: individuals, in fact, generate a much higher number of original ideas than groups.



One interesting fact is that group creativity can be increased by embracing conflict, as I wrote about in Creativity in Teams: The Truth Hurts:

Sharon Novak structured three different sorts of brainstorming groups: one had no specific instructions, a second was told not to criticize others’ ideas, and the third was told to freely debate and critique each others’ ideas.

The result? The third group — where dissent was encouraged — generated more original ideas than the other two groups.

In the absence of explicitly advocating conflict in groups, creativity and other desirable results of group interaction are blocked.


If we really want to improve decision-making and innovation — as so many companies aspire to do — we need to create a context in which power imbalances are leveled, people are empowered to question ideas presented by others, and all are encouraged to courageously push back on groupthink.


In Three Problems of Power -- Problem Two: Silence and Blindness, Margaret Heffernan links the imbalance of power to organizational silence:

One of the biggest traps of power is that the way that others respond to it. Most believe they get ahead by pleasing or, at least, not openly disagreeing. That means they contribute less than they might. This silence suppresses concerns; it also suppresses good ideas.

That they have this effect on people is something many powerful people fail to understand. I remember one CEO, whom I admired greatly, gnashing his teeth with frustration because his people so rarely stepped forward with ideas or initiatives. How did he explain it? He thought they just must be lazy. He himself had no insight into how, quite unconsciously, hierarchy silenced them.

At New York University’s Stern School of Business, Elizabeth Morrison and Elizabeth Milliken researched the phenomenon they call organizational silence. They found that the chief reasons for it are fear (of conflict or disagreement) and futility (I could say something, but it won’t make any difference, so why bother?) This exerts a high cost. Where power induces silence, it leaves decision-makers blind. Think VW emissions or Boeing safety concerns.

Melody Wilding discusses the related idea of pluralistic ignorance in How To Challenge The Herd Mentality At Work:

This phenomenon is called pluralistic ignorance. It describes a situation in which a majority of people in a group privately disagree with an idea, while incorrectly assuming others in the group accept it. Instead of standing up for our beliefs, we go along with what the group seems to favor.

[…]

There’s definitely a deep-seated fear in speaking up against a group, so don’t beat yourself up for feeling tentative about it. It’s normal to be worried you’ll embarrass yourself, feel rejected or lose people’s respect. But it’s a good exercise in self-assuredness to get used to believing in yourself enough to risk contradicting the accepted group opinion.

Returning to the theme of creativity, Leigh Thompson zooms in on conformity as one of several barriers to group creativity:

Four major problems stifle the effectiveness of brainstorming in teams. The basic problem is not teamwork itself, but rather the social-cognitive processes that operate in teamwork and how teams are managed. I refer to these problems as social loafing, conformity, production blocking, and downward norm setting.

[...]

Conformity

A basic human principle is the desire to be liked and accepted by others, particularly others in one’s groups. Several theories of social behavior (e.g., social identity theory) provide compelling evidence that people seek to identify with groups and sometimes will engage in bizarre behaviors to ensure their acceptance by a group. In brainstorming teams this means, for example, that managers may be cautious about their presentation of ideas and suggestions because they fear that others may negatively evaluate the ideas. This, of course, will lead members to respond with “appropriate,” traditional, conservative, and highly similar ideas—exactly the kind of behavior that most organizations would like to avoid. For example, word association studies reveal that people make more conventional and clichéd responses when they are in a group than when they are alone.

[...]

Conformity can occur when group members are concerned that others in the group will be critical of their suggestions, despite instructions designed to minimize such concerns. Many social conventions in companies suggest that people should stay “on topic” and not present ideas that diverge greatly from those being discussed. This type of conformity is usually not a good idea when it comes to creative thinking.

The effect of pluralistic ignorance, organizational silence, and the innate desire to conform translate into lowered creativity and poor problem-solving in groups.

If we really want to improve decision-making and innovation — as so many companies aspire to do — we need to create a context in which power imbalances are leveled, people are empowered to question ideas presented by others, and all are encouraged to courageously push back on groupthink.

A tall order.


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