Resisting Groupthink

Sometimes a story in the newspaper provides a glimpse to what inflicts us on a micro level within the workforce. People in New York walking past a dying Good Samaritan, although extremely tragic, highlights a lesson we need to heed in our daily occupation.

The recent groupthink environment that gripped the human psyche in the streets of New York affects us all at some point in our lives. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, exhibits another startling example of such an occurrence. Gladwell chronicles the story of a young Queens’s woman named Kitty Genovese. Chased and attacked three times over a period of a half hour time frame, Genovese eventually died of stabbed wounds. Witnessing this brutality were thirty-eight neighbours, none of who contemplated calling the police!

Many wanted to blame such benign apathy on the cold, inhumane, alienation conditioned by life in the big city. Not satisfied with such a rationalization two New York City psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley, delved into a little more depth to what is now referred to as the “bystander problem.” What they uncovered was startling! The most prevalent aspect to predicting “helping behavior” was the number of witnesses. Basically, their findings exposed that the greater the number of individuals, hearing or seeing a need for help, the less likely it would elicit a response. Latane and Darley synthesized “when people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused.” Ironically, if Kitty had been assaulted on a barren desolate street with a solitary bystander her chances of survival would have improved radically.

Gladwell has synthesized that the key to getting people to change their groupthink mentality “sometimes lies with the smallest details of their immediate situation. The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.” As such we cannot underestimate the power context in our work environment.

The heart wrenching Kitty Genovese narrative, and Gladwell’s synthesis highlight what I believe to be three extremely important doctrines for leaders to heed in moving past groupthink:

  1. “Democracy”, writes Walt Whitman, “is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.” As leaders we cannot continually wait for consensus. Waiting can literally be a matter of life and death. Many times groupthink paralyses engagement. Change does lie in the “smallest detail’ more specifically in a lone leader’s courage to “not accept this seemingly inevitable fate” of the status quo. We all need to step out of comfort zone and contribute to what we believe will help the overall success of the company no matter how small it may seem.
  2. Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, examines motivation in the 20th century and the need for corporations to move away from the “carrot and stick” reward system to a higher level in helping their employees realize their full potential. Pink, in Chapter 4 on Autonomy, highlights the importance of autonomy as one of the 3 corner stone’s to motivation. For this to happen we need to trust and empower our people by allowing more “decision latitude” in their daily work. Rewarding the behavior we want, and punishing the behavior we don’t, no longer works in today’s work force. Trusting our employees with their time is the crucible for moving past this dynamics.
  3. Finally, we need to have a work environment where people are able to speak up. More importantly, we need to accept the fact that our ideas may not be acted upon. Egos have to be left at the door so that we continue to encourage our people to question and be engaged.

The voyage to initiate change will often be lonely and frustrating. Our faith must rest in the ideal of making the system better for all of those around us.  Solace and true happiness can be found in fighting for a cause higher than us.  But … in the end … we need to step forward and act.

My hope is that by following the three “small” principles stated above we will create an epidemic of a basic, contagious underlying pattern promoting positive behavior that companies need to prosper. Gladwell explains that little changes can have big effects so that our “ideas and products and messages and behaviours have the ability to spread like viruses do.” Highlighting this point, Gladwell challenges everyone to take a piece of paper and fold it over once, and then to take the folded paper and fold it again fifty times. Take a guess on the height of the final stack would be? ……………………………….Approximately the distance between the earth and the sun! Epidemics spread in the same geometric fashion. The challenge for leaders is taking the small step to initiate a geometric change of equivalent proportions.

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Dr. Seuss – Why Lead? I Want to Follow!

Horton, one of Dr. Seuss’ famous characters, is an elephant. Due to his very large ears, he is the only one in the jungle capable of hearing the smallest of sounds, coming from the smallest of people who happen to be living inside a speck of dust. Horton accurately depicts the conundrum we all face with leadership. Much is written, documented and truly believed to be seen on the topic but in the end it is “alluring, elusive and frustrating.” We know it when we see it, but to actually convince others of a path creates similar turmoil to what Horton faced convincing the Wickersham Brothers that the Whos’ do indeed exist: ridicule, taunts and disbelief.

Yet, whether it is ego or not, many of us want to become leaders. Now I may be playing with semantics but I say enough on leadership! Let’s just follow by helping people work together. Wal-Mart kingpin, Sam Walton once quipped that “Outstanding leaders go out of the way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” An argument may be made that Walton’s comment is self serving in that he is leveraging those around him for personal economic gain. To me, it shows that not everyone can be a leader and that followers are key elements to organizational change and success.

It is probably fair to say that organizations have more followers than leaders. As such, if we are to hone in on a potential true handicap within organizations, ineffective followers may be more an impediment and probable, than ineffectual leaders. We have all heard the saying that too many cooks in the kitchen ruin the stew. All of us can not be the leader but that does not diminish our contribution. Like the Far Side Carton depicted above Robert Kelley, in his article “In Praise of Followers”,  gives us some indication of the emancipation we may feel when realizing that “we’re (they’re) a follower, too.” Kelley elaborates on four qualities imperative to good fellowship. Succinctly stated, Kelley believes good follower’s traits to be:

  1. The ability to manage themselves well. Not only able to think for themselves, they work well independently and with little supervision.
  2. Good followers are steadfast in a principle outside themselves. This principle may take the form of a cause, a product, a work team, an organization or an idea.
  3. A commitment to build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact. They master their skills so they may contribute in an effective manner to the organization as a whole. To accomplish this they hold higher performance standards than that demanded by their job or work team.
  4. Lastly, effective followers are courageous, honest, and credible. Individuals of high ethical standards they know how to give credit when credit is due and are not afraid to own up to their mistakes. Simple put they are to be counted on!


It appears that the attributes of followers are very similar to characteristics required of leaders! So follow Horton’s advice and encourage the followers:

Don’t give up! I believe in you all
A person’s a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!


Broadwell, M. M., “Why Command and Control Won’t Go Away,” Training September 1995, pp. 63 – 68.

Deal, T. & Kennedy, A. “Culture: A New Look Through Old Lenses,” Journal; of Applied Behavioral Science, November 1983, p. 501.

Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. November December 1988, Vol. 66, No. 6, pp. 142-148.

Seuss, T. (1954). Horton Hears a Who. Random House Books for Young Readers: New York.

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