Villains get too much credit. While it’s easiest to peg the blame of an ethics scandal on one or two shady executives, that’s often not the reality.
Many ethics scandals are not the products of a deliberate scheme, but the evolution of small compromises made by a group.
“No one ever set out to defraud the public,” says Weston Smith, former CFO and whistleblower, about his participation in the $1.4 billion HealthSouth scandal. “We made little concessions over time. And each time we rationalized it.”
Psychologist Irving Janis first described this phenomena in 1972, coining the term groupthink. He defined it as happening when a group “makes faulty decisions because the group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.”
Disagreements can cause frustrations, loss of rapport or even demotion. To avoid this, members of a group will seek to maintain harmony with their peers, even if it means going against their values.
It takes courage to speak up when your idea might be unpopular, but it’s necessary for maintaining a culture of accountability and integrity. Here are some tips to help navigate your team away from groupthink decision making.
1. Know where you stand
Define your values now. Being aware of potential issues in advance prepares you to determine where boundaries are being crossed.
2. Keep the goal in mind
Groupthink can occur when patience is exhausted and individuals just want to find a quick solution. Staying on track reduces some of the stressors of time constraints that can lead to a groupthink-based outcome. Be willing to be the one that asks, “How does this relate to our goal?” or “This is a great idea! Could we continue this discussion another time so we can return to our goal?”
3. Play devil’s advocate
Disagreements over ideas and viewpoints on how a task should be solved is called task conflict (as opposed to relational conflict which is interpersonal disagreements). Research shows that when members of a group are in task conflict with each other, their collective and individual problem solving capabilities actually increase. Don’t be afraid to poke holes in the ideas that are generated. Speak openly about concerns before finalizing the decision.
Dov Seidman, Founder and CEO of LRN, explains the importance of the pause. “I do not mean just a momentary break from labor, but a deep pause, one in which we take time to reflect on the complex ramifications of our behaviors as well as determine the behaviors we need to thrive – individually and collectively – in our organizations. It is a pause that deepens our moral consciousness.”
Making a decision for the sake of completion can be counterproductive. Bring the ideas to the table. Discuss them. Throw rocks at them. Then pause. Step away, and let the options simmer in your mind. See how they achieve the goal. Come to a decision another day. The more weighty the matter, the longer the pause should be.
5. Suggest a “Plan B”
In his book Practical Lessons in Leadership, Art Petty suggests developing a “second solution.” Oftentimes, after the pressure of reaching a decision is released, new innovative ideas emerge, sometimes even better ones. Additionally it is always to the advantage of the team to have something on deck in the event unforeseeable blockades prevent the successful implementation of plan A.
It’s all too often that the excuse, “Nobody said anything, so we just went along with it” is made during a corporate scandal. Ethical leaders avoid such thinking by facilitating accountability and debate.
As a team member working to steer clear of groupthink, you may have to be more assertive than you usually are. You may have to speak up, when you are usually quiet. Be brave. It’s worth it.
– Lara Loewl
Activities Coordinator, NASBA Center for the Public Trust