Don't Think Like Me

April 5, 2016


This post was originally published on LinkedIn in October of last year.  In our current political climate, and daily navigation through complex business decisions, it continues to have particular resonance as leaders.


Groupthink.  It’s a term coined originally by William H. Whyte, Jr. in 1952 in Fortune Magazine.  Later, Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale, completed the most influential work on the topic.  He gleaned from case studies such as the Bay of Pigs debacle, and Pearl Harbor.  His original book on this, Victims of Groupthink, was published in 1972 and revised in 1982.  In short, this is how Janis describes groupthink:


“The main principle of groupthink……is this: The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups.”


We can easily find groupthink across various realms: business, politics, education, etc.  In organizations, this phenomenon can be absolutely disastrous for business.  Janis has given us eight symptoms of groupthink which have been studied at length.  You can read about them here.  But, there is one symptom that I’m most intrigued with: self-censorship.  Self-censorship is essentially muting one’s opinions or thoughts such that private concerns or disagreements are not expressed among a group for fear of being ridiculed, or perhaps being seen as disloyal.


How many times have you found yourself to be the odd person out?  It could be the most innocuous of circumstances – i.e. the only person not to like a certain flavor of ice cream; the only person not to have been hooked on a certain sitcom; the only person not to know what a certain word means.  Simple and harmless.  But, what about those circumstances where standing out feels far riskier.


Much has been written and researched about the topic of diversity.  The definition itself is a form of diversity as there are a multitude of meanings found to describe diversity.  In the final analysis, people are diverse – not just because we’re made up of different ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, etc.  It’s because we each hold individual opinions and unique interpretations of the world.


When I sit in a boardroom or conference room, I’m not only sitting there as a black, female, forty-something, first-generation American with all of what that means to me.  I’m also sitting there as one who is a learned extrovert having emerged from my formative years barely uttering any words in public. I thought I was chronically shy (since I found my voice, now you can’t shut me up!). 


But, I’ve really had to learn not to self-censor.  I worked extra hard to take that voice in my head that said my question or comment was stupid, and turn it into one that was instead telling me that people needed to hear my point of view.  After years of wrestling with this, I now truly believe that to not express my viewpoint, particularly when it’s dissenting, is unfair to those in the room.  People deserve to have all the brains around the table, particularly when the problem to be solved is intransigent and unfamiliar.


Groupthink literally kills the golden nuggets which exist in each of us…..particularly those viewed as least likely to have them.  It robs a meeting and a company of getting everyone’s best thinking.  Worse, it spawns situations like Enron and the global financial crisis of 2007-8.  It wastes time, energy and goodwill. 


I can’t think like you.  Don’t think like me.  Avoid groupthink at every turn.  Find your voice, then use it.  The world of business, in particular, needs to hear from you.


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