There's a saying that I made up the other day in a tweet exchange with my Inc colleague Suzanne Lucas. Individuals can generate bad ideas, but it takes a committee for a real disaster.

That's exactly what happened in Idaho, when a group of teachers dressed like ethnic stereotypes for Halloween and followed that up with an impersonation of a wall at the Mexican border. It was a disaster of a decision. At least update, all 14 were on paid administrative leave.

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Don't think such levels of foolishness are exclusive to that part of the country or to teachers. Corporations you would think were smart have done some of the most amazingly dumb things. The issue is generally one of how collections of people work and the dangers of groupthink.

Theory of groupthink

Groupthink is the unfortunate dynamic in which people in a group follow bad decisions and fail to speak up against them. Others begin to support an idea that is visibly bad. Without an apparent good reason, others go along. Suddenly, the group is careening down the side of a rocky embankment.

There are multiple reasons that come down to social dynamics. One is that few people want to feel as though they are on the outside of a group. Psychology experiments have shown that a sizable percentage of people will choose a wrong answer to a question because they are uncomfortable sticking out.

And what are group decisions if not the answer to a question that multiple people agree on? That is why individuals have bad ideas and committees create disasters. In organizations, a course of action is frequently the product of group agreement. It might be that the pressure comes from everyone else in the group. Or the result it might owe to a leader, like a supervisor or boss, strongly supporting something and people feeling vulnerable if they don't appear to agree.

Some ways to mitigate the problem

You can't completely eradicate the possibility of groupthink. The potential is baked too deeply into the average person's psyche. And the inclination to consider the opinions of others isn't a totally bad thing. Maybe you've had toe experience of someone who would never listen to other people until things went wrong and then tried to find someone to blame.

Being open to the opinions of others can be positive and help you avoid insularity. However, there are steps you can take to help lower the chance of people whirling off into space while holding to some idea that too many of them think is completely off base.

  • Avoid being a domineering leader. If you push your opinions onto everyone on a team, you run the risk of them agreeing even when what you suggest is utterly goofy.
  • Solicit ideas and research individually before a meeting. The greatest danger of groupthink is when people feel pressured into providing feedback they don't believe. Ask participants in advance to provide ideas, suggestions, and other thoughts ahead of time in written form. That lets them respond with greater honesty.
  • Convey the ideas to the group anonymously. When you have the honest advance feedback, offer it to the group without identifying people. Then you can get people to respond without so much consideration of the personality behind the idea. When there's a consensus of approach, you can always credit the people after the fact.
  • Get the right mix of people and information. Groups are useful to bring into play the variety of knowledge, experience, skills, and insight that can full address a problem. Don't defeat the approach by leaning too heavily toward one type of background. Invite people who collectively can bring a view with context.
  • Conduct a group session as an investigator, not a director. Step back and ask broad and non-leading questions if you're in charge. Forget about having people agree with you. Uncover what they know and can contribute.
  • Facilitate communication with and for everyone. Sometimes people with much to offer are uncomfortable expressing themselves in a group. Or there can be biases, such as women frequently have greater difficulty in being heard and perhaps not trying. Make space so everyone can speak and be sure to hear from each member.
  • Allot enough time. Some of the worst decisions are made under time pressure, so that the most outspoken and forceful may take control by default. Anticipate issues in advance and begin to consider them before the last minute.