GroupThink: It's Not You, It's Them!

Original Photo by David Pacey
I dare you, I double dare you...(no, not to "say What one more time") but to say that you were never coerced into agreeing with a decision that a group of friends or coworkers came up with, in spite of your reticence, just out of desire to fit in.

In these times where work ethics, and personal relationships have grown into a mushy pile of political correctness, touchy-feely soul-crunching-heart-wrenching "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" emotional sensitivity, the biggest victim to  such practices has been undoubtedly critical thinking.

A critical thinker in any entity or group is the thorn in the side of the applauding masses. In the quest for cohesiveness among groups in meetings, in decision making processes, or most business processes, people have simply chosen the easy way out by choosing to agree with the majority and shunning any disagreeing opinion as just not the right fit to the group, or the weird one, or the annoying one.

Those of you who are fans of classical movies can recognize this pattern of behavior in the iconic "12 Angry Men", where Henry Fonda's character raises the ire of his co-jurors for disagreeing with a fast"guilty" verdict which could cost a man his life. I highly recommend the film for its artistic value and for the takeaway it brings to this subject and will refrain from giving away any more details.

Located somewhere between Peer-Pressure and Dictatorship, GroupThink is defined as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome."

Interestingly enough, this opens up the door for unscrupulous manipulators who know their way around this phenomenon to position key players who would subscribe to their agenda and alter the collective consciousness of the others through passive intimidation.

So what happens exactly when, in a business context,  the primary goal of a group member becomes to achieve group satisfaction rather than to find a truly successful decision based on their own expertise and point of view?

Summary Illustration of GroupThink Dynamics

In a real life example from my various consultancy projects, someone in a position of power was systematically trying to introduce into their company, in various open vacancies, an array of people with whom he has personal ties. He had already a core team of "groupies" around him that bullied everyone else into signing up into their way of doing things (regardless of how correct or NOT it was).

The meetings I attended with these individuals were always plagued by the same pattern of behavior. The inner circle persons to this influential individual would always advance an idea or an agenda or a solution and the rest would systematically fall in line. While there might have been some debate and [constructive] discussions at first, as more groupies were added to the team, the dissenting opinions were less outspoken and tended to agree faster with all the nonsense advanced by the others.

Naturally, the quality of work suffered and was obvious in several key opportunities being lost. To an external observer this was an inescapable truth but to the applauding masses, everything was just peachy.

As these dynamics tend to destabilize work and create problems it's a must for oversight bodies and individuals such as the HR department, or a highly placed manager to detect such anomalies and introduce remedies that work aim to mitigate and eventually eliminate this tendency.

Dissenting opinions are not troublesome, they are a healthy to critical thinking, managers should be always willing to listen to these opinions regardless of who is advancing them. Even someone who is being negative because they are unhappy can bring about important wake-up calls to the sleep-walking corporate environment.
An idea would be to assign always in each project a devil's advocate whose job would be to poke holes at the presented idea. Such divergent thinking when incorporated into the companies processes and procedures allows for early trouble-shooting and anticipatory measures rather than after-the-fact fire-fighting.

So, if you occasionally [often] feel you are a nuisance to colleagues who all seems to flow in unique harmony [think The Blue Danube - 1939 MGM Cartoon ] simply because you present a different point of view, keep your chin up,  it's probably not you, it's them!


How Essential Is Employee Engagement For Your Brand?

On Friday, I was asked to tag along to visit several dealerships in a hunt for a new car. Having grown up around cars in my late father's car repair shop, my entourage believe that I bring added insight to the matter, a misconception I maintain thanks to Google and the internet.

When we set out on our grand tour, my companion told me beforehand which brand dealerships they had visited and which car had ranked more points in in the quest for it to be The One.

As we hopped from one dealership to another, met with their salespeople, discussed the various vehicles specs and budgets and eventually had our own post review discussion, it dawned on me that there was a close correlation between some specific wording used by the salespeople and how we perceived the brand from our angle as customers.
Out of 5 dealerships we visited I noticed the following:

  • 3 dealerships left us unimpressed, one of which was completely unpleasant
  • 2 dealerships were great, one of which was really excellent.

I am not going to mention which is which because this is not the point of this piece and because there are enough people on blogs whoring themselves out to brands. What I will mention though is the common denominator among the 3 dealerships which offered the most disappointing experience. During our visit to each of those, we naturally asked a lot of questions about the exhibited vehicles, their features, the lack of certain options and models and whether they might be bringing those into the local market. In retrospect, I noticed that in each case the salesperson would refer to his own dealership  as "they". To be clear, they did not refer to the brand but to the local dealership (management)
  • They chose not to include these options in the car
  • They chose not to bring this model to Lebanon
  • They decided to raise the price
  • They prefer not to sell this...

This was aggravated by a more detached body language that made us feel that the salespeople just wanted to be done with answering the questions in order to go take a break.
Compared to the two locations where we had a good experience, this inferred a major disconnect between management and its employees. In both locations that made it to the final selection lists, salespeople distinguished themselves by:
  • A more upbeat demeanor: they would immediately notice a new client walking in, greet promptly and engage in helpful but non intrusive discussion.
  • They ALWAYS talked about their offerings and vehicles by using "WE":
    • We have the best rated vehicles
    • We have superior after sales
    • We have the best deal in this range of vehicles
This forced me to do some introspection about my own behavior in various instances of jobs, associations and activities that I had been a part of. I can safely say that the correlation applied also to me.  The best example I can give is my past experience in the Telecom sector:
  • While working with Cellis (FTML) one of the first two mobile operators in Lebanon, my speech always used the "We" form.
  • When Cellis was substituted by what is now Alfa and the plethora of companies that have subsequently managed this brand name ("managed" being an overstatement here), myself and several of my colleagues drifted slowly but surely to using "They" when referring to the company even while we still worked there.
In essence, no matter how deep business owners, management teams or any person in charge of  brands choose to bury their heads in the sands of "employees are here to slave for me", at some point they need to wake up to the smell of disgruntled staff passively sabotaging the business just by their demeanor and body language (to begin with).
The only time a business can carry on not giving a damn about it's employees and not suffer the consequences is when it is monopolizing a sector (and we know all about that in Lebanon).

It goes beyond any doubt that whatever you seed internally in terms of employee engagement will surely trickle down to you customers. It won't matter how many discounts you do, how many offers you release, your brand will be always associated with the resentment emanating from your customer-facing staff.
Good luck getting rid of that stench!