Rethinking Groupthink: Great Advice For Leaders From Adam Grant’s New Book “Originals”

August 25, 2016

originalsI highly recommend Adam Grant’s 2016 book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World.” It’s the best evidence-based management book so far this century, surpassing his previous book “Give and Take.” Originals will be required reading in my MBA class in Organizational Behavior starting this semester.

The entire book was good, but the chapter that resonated the most with me was entitled “Rethinking Groupthink.” Grant provides the classic definition of groupthink as “the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent” (p. 176). Groupthink isn’t just the enemy of originality; it’s a pervasive threat to effective decision-making for any leader.

Cohesiveness has long been thought to be a major cause of groupthink. For years I’ve taught my classes that if you are part of a cohesive group, the question is “to what extent does my group suffer from groupthink?” After reading Grant’s book, I’m going to have to revise how I teach this because Grant does a good job of reviewing the evidence and showing it’s simply not true. Turns out that cohesive groups are just as likely to make good decisions as they are to make bad ones.

Too many leaders usually only seek advice from people they consider supportive, favoring the comfort of consensus over the discomfort of dissent. Because of my beliefs about the detrimental effects of cohesion, I’ve always taught that leaders should be as inclusive as possible, intentionally surrounding themselves with people who are dissimilar and that can be trusted to have the courage to disagree. Grant confirms this is sound advice, with the evidence showing “dissenting opinions are useful even when they are wrong” (p. 185).

If the social bonds of cohesion are not the main causes of groupthink, then what is? The evidence suggests the main causes are overconfident leaders with an inflated concern for personal reputation. People that disagree with or otherwise challenge these leaders are quickly marginalized and often don’t last long. Overconfidence and inflated concern for self are also likely signs the leader is a narcissist. Narcissists disparage others when their performance or judgement is challenged; hence, narcissistic leaders are more likely to create the conditions where those around them are afraid to say what the leader needs to hear.

Grant provides an excellent example of effective leadership in Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates. Dalio has made diversity one of his company’s core values, and he systematically holds people accountable for dissenting with himself and anyone else in the company. According to Dalio, “The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true” (p. 195). Companies like Bridgewater that can get employees to accept personal responsibility for speaking up don’t need to worry as much about groupthink.

Grant concludes the chapter with a discussion of Dalio’s personal investigation into understanding people who shape the world. Dalio has found that in addition to being driven and imaginative, these leaders have something else in common:

“Shapers” are independent thinkers: curious, non-conforming, and rebellious. They practice brutal, nonhierarchical honesty. And they act in the face of risk, because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing…. The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others. (Pp. 208-209).

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (2)

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  1. Reading this post has so many implications for business, politics, and leadership in general. I think it’s quite interesting that this author’s research is showing that cohesive groups are just as likely to make good decisions as they are to make bad ones. Did he differentiate between whether or not cohesive groups need to be diverse groups, or does it matter?

    I’m not at all surprised that narcissistic leaders are more likely to create the conditions where those around them are afraid to say what the leader needs to hear. One issue to me seems to be that narcissists often start off being quite confident and good at what they do, which eventually leads to their collective promotion and support, followed by a predictable buildup of ego, and resulting narcissistic approach – a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy along the way. Furthermore, narcissism and charisma seem to me to be closely linked so it’s a fine line between effectively balancing narcissism and charisma – is it not? For example, we want charismatic leaders who can move and inspire others, but we don’t want them to be narcissistic … this HBR article states “Not all charismatic people are narcissistic, but many narcissists are charismatic, and the more charismatic they are, the more time it takes to spot them.” (https://hbr.org/2014/01/why-we-love-narcissists)

    I suppose a wise leader would intentionally surround themselves with people who are dissimilar from the beginning, who can be trusted to have the courage to disagree, as you mentioned. But part of the problem I see is that a narcissist might actually think they’re acting as a “shaper” (independent thinkers who are curious, non-conforming, and rebellious) when really they just don’t realize they’ve become a full-blown narcissist. I can think of several narcissist-type leaders who likely genuinely believe that they are at the forefront of shaping human thought, but they’ve arrived at a point where they believe they’re the only ones who actually have the perspective and support to solve or address a given problem, and falsely operate from the perspective that they’re the only potential hero so they begin to ignore other opinions. So I leave you with this question: at what point does a shaper morph into a narcissist and how can a narcissistic leader revert to an effective shaper?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great thoughts! Sorry it took me so long to reply. Thanks for sharing. Bret