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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