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3 Ways Companies can Use Diversity to Reduce Groupthink

Groupthink not only hurts your company's innovation, but also your work culture...

We’ve all had those moments where we want to fit in, nodding our heads along with the most agreeable person in the room. Workgroups run into similar issues, but the majority of the time, we ignore and normalize obstacles we encounter every day. Even innovative companies have fallen victim to this mindset: Think the decline of the American auto industry or the banking/housing derivatives leading to the 2008 Recession. But these companies’ missteps highlight a common strategic flaw: groupthink.

Groupthink — the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a team or group becomes too similar in outlook (discouraging creativity or individual responsibility) — was popularized nearly half a decade ago. You might recognize a few of its characteristics. They include collective rationalization, self-censorship, direct pressure on dissenters, and mindguards that protect work groups from contradictory information.

But why can’t companies avoid it? For starters, groupthink isn’t inherently bad. Managers merely prefer to work with cohesive teams and there’s a social need to keep up likability amongst peers.

As you may imagine, a definitive solution to groupthink is diversity. Research shows that multiple sources of diversity reduce groupthink because it’s more difficult for teams to form homogenous groups. For example, diversity helped Pepsi-Cola avoid groupthink and expand their market across key demographics. For companies earning $500 million+ annually, 85 percent report diversity is crucial for workplace innovation.

On paper, it’s simple: hire and promote with diversity top of mind. Unfortunately, it’s harder to execute. Companies need to stay relevant and keep up with a rapidly diversifying American population which will be less than 50 percent white by 2035. Currently, companies don’t adequately understand how to implement diverse practices that help spur creativity and innovation.

Using diversity as a guide, here’s how companies can reduce groupthink in their strategic and creative processes.

1. Blend Inclusion with Diversity

“If you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude,” said Barabara Whye, Intel’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Inclusion is the glue that binds a diverse workforce together. While diversity is the representation of differences, inclusion refers to the utilization of that diversity within organizational efforts. As you may expect, diverse groups help source innovative ideas, but companies also need cross-functional and cross-vertical innovation teams to ensure everyone remains engaged in the same work. This unity allows workers to share their unique perspectives, ask questions and educate others on the functions of their plan. For example, companies task individual employees with brainstorming, planning and implementing unique project ideas. Later, they share their ideas and educate others on how they came up with it. Within one-on-one or small groups from other departments, they can itemize the most effective parts on a larger format. Gallup’s survey indicates three ways companies can independently include inclusivity and diversity within their teams and these strategies can help any worker feel respected and valued for their strengths, just as long as leaders foster freeing environments.

2. Create Clear Decision-Making Policies

Boardroom or “bored room”? Groupthink offers a static comfort zone of agreeability that can make brainstorming an unmotivating snoozefest. Innovation requires an air of push and pull. According to the Journal of Academic and Business Ethics (JABE), two indicators of groupthink include time constraints and limited decision-making methods. But JABE suggests a cure: clear decision-making policies. To get our mojo flowing, the Ross Four-Step Agenda to Problem-Solving offers four quick questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is there a problem and how does it work?
  • How can I identify and rank criteria for better solutions?
  • Which solution has the most effective outcome?

As diverse work teams brainstorm, consider diverging to find different solutions and then converge to target a few, concise answers. But to innovate means to imagine new roles and perspectives. The Six Thinking Hats Method, proposed by Edward D. Bono, incorporates diversity through a series of approaches that offer alternative solutions to problems. It incorporates metaphorical “hats” or mindsets. With a “green hat”, you might look at the creative applications of your problem while a “white hat” helps you analyze past trends. Each method creates mental flexibility amongst groups so they can accurately determine strengths and weaknesses.

According to the Harvard Business Review, team members who brainstorm together shouldn’t stay together. That’s because they actually come up with fewer ideas than they do alone. So, when you brainstorm alone and bring your thoughts to the group-led brainstorm session, you bring “all of yourself” to work instead of just the part that you think will “fit in”. Companies like Honda undergo similar discussion processes for several months before coming to strategic and creative conclusions on projects.

3. Cultivate Cultures of Critical Thinking — Inside and Outside of your Company

We often shy away from criticism, but —  when offered productively — it can drive us to greater insights. “Cultures of critical thinking” allow employees to remain transparent and to share their knowledge and inspiration with everyone. Constructive criticism is necessary to create and deliver quality products to diverse consumers. You might want to consider these approaches to foster healthy criticism that limits groupthink inside and outside of your organizations:

Inside your Company:

Create Critical Reasoning Groups/Contention Boards — A little debate is always fun. After individual workers brainstorm on their own, encourage groups with opposing views to argue their points. For example, the most successful companies and corporate boards like the CIA play out “contentious board meetings” where members debate to win the argument. Vanguard also created a “culture of reasoned dissent” which helped them avoid mortgage-backed security investments after investment analyst Mabel Yu noticed their poor quality despite a positive AAA rating.

The Red-Teaming Approach — During discussions, a red-teaming simulation designates a team to play an adversarial role. Also called “devil’s advocates”, they attempts to defeat the other team’s reasoning and build the strongest possible case against their business plan. But to gain the full purpose, members on the red team should be swapped out during the next project. A similar method is used in NASA reviews — sometimes called “murder boards” — and even many military plans use it.

Outside your Company:

Consult Diverse Experts — Research from Deloitte University suggests that diverse groups are better at identifying people who can best innovate. As a result, each person on the team should engage consultants with equally unique subject-matter and expertise. When combined, this input may spark some worldly innovation. Companies like IDEO hire people with facilitation skills, not experience, to drive their design process and outsource experts for optimum project value.

Connect with Customers — It’s true that customers know best. In fact, they can offer great insights into your products and services because real-world diversity fosters the best form of dissent; better than any team could craft. If they don’t like a product or service, they’ll let you know why. Sharing customer feedback with leaders and teammates helps you understand which solutions will actually make an impact on consumers’ lives.

From Groupthink to Group Growth  
One thing is for certain: Diversity is the key to growth. It helps us expand our vision instead of staying sheltered in groupthink’s often peaceful, yet boring comfort zone. Leaders, especially, need to take a stand and encourage authentic and opposing viewpoints so everyone can learn the balance between individual value and a diverse workforce. Ultimately, it’s crucial we understand that who creates the work matters because it’s those innovative ideas that can resonate with consumers and improve the world for good. It may be hard work, but it will be necessary to emerge victorious in a diversified and more dynamic world. Otherwise, history will repeat itself and the bubble will burst for your company just as it has for others.

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