Falling prey to groupthink? How to encourage healthy debate in your team

Have you ever been part of a team where people are too afraid to speak up and challenge an approach that’s being taken? Maybe everyone’s gung ho on a way forward with something, and you’re the only one who thinks it’s a bad idea – but there’s no way in hell you’re going to pipe up. Or maybe it’s the bosses’ new, bright, shiny ‘thing’ – and challenging that is a career-limiting move. Maybe it’s more subtle. Perhaps the team all get along so well, and there’s so much collegiality, that you’ve all become a bit conflict-avoidant. The harmony of the team is taking precedence over the necessary hearty debate that leads to good outcomes.

You might think it’s no big deal. But the road to bad decisions is littered with a lack of open, frank dialogue on things that matter. High-performing teams seek out diverse opinions. They make it a positive experience when people have the courage to disagree with each other on a way forward. They actively and regularly mine for conflict when they sense there’s ‘groupthink’ at play. And although it might mean leaning into some courage, it’s always done respectfully and with the idea – not the person – being challenged.

Head-on challenges to groupthink have to start with the leader of the team. The person with the most power in the room always sets the tone. But over time, this becomes the entire team’s responsibility. Everyone plays their part.

So how can you avoid groupthink in your team and encourage everyone to speak up?

Make sure you have sufficient trust. Before you dive into encouraging hearty debate, you need to ensure there’s sufficient trust within the team. The first priority is to create an environment where people feel it’s safe for them to be themselves and have the courage to bring their unique perspective and voice. So if you haven’t got that, start there. Read this blog  and this blog on how to build trust within teams.

Make challenging ideas a process, not a person. Sometimes the ‘black hat’ role falls to one person (usually the CFO in an exec team!). This isn’t fair on that person and it’s not healthy for the team either. Rather than the function of challenging the popular ideas falling to a single person, it’s better for the team to use a process. That way, the challenging of ideas is held within the group.

Mine for conflict. Mining for conflict is where you purposefully challenge your ideas as a team. It’s especially important when you sense you’re all going a little too easily towards an idea. Maybe you’ve all fallen in love with the first idea, or you sense you might be missing a key perspective. Maybe there are ‘outliers’ in ideas or perspectives that are not being heard.

Here are some useful phrases to mine for conflict:

“What are we/am I missing?”

“What’s wrong with this idea we’re keen on?”

“Why not do this?”

“Whose perspective are we missing that we need to consider? What would they think/say about this?” (good for pulling in the perspective of other stakeholder groups such as customers, employees, board and suppliers, community)

“What are the risks of this approach?”

“Let’s play devil’s advocate to this…”

“Who disagrees?”

“What do you think?”

“Who has a different perspective?”

Try different facilitation methods other than merely discussion. Consider different facilitation tools rather than just general discussion, such as a structured round of asking people to give their thoughts on a topic. Or try breaking into smaller groups for discussion and then reporting back.

Be aware of body language, especially if you’re chairing the meeting. If you notice body language that may indicate someone is uncomfortable about an idea or the way forward – if someone looks like they want to speak up but is hesitating – invite them to give their perspective.

Make it a positive experience. When someone has the courage to speak up, especially if their perspective is different from the rest, make a point of thanking them for bringing a different viewpoint and perspective (even if you don’t agree). As a leader of a team, this is especially important for you to do.

As the leader, go last with your input or thoughts. When you’ve got the most senior job title, your voice often comes out a little louder in group discussions. It’s easier for people to follow the boss, so by holding back on venturing your opinion, and encouraging those in your team to go first, you allow the space for others to speak their minds more freely.

Ask more open, curious questions. Here are some good options:

“When you said x, what did you mean?”

“You mentioned x is important. Why is that important to you?”

“What…?” and “How…?” questions usually start off the open discussions that build a better understanding and provide more context.

Ideally, you want to get to a place where you all speak up when you’re together and then move forward with one voice and a consistent message.

Remember, conflict and healthy debate is a good thing, as long as it’s to do with ideas and perspectives, not personal attacks.

2 Comments

  1. Emma Condon on April 14, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    Suzi,

    Thank you for sharing this amazing blog post. I really enjoyed the content, especially the specific questions you included. This relates to one of my most recent blog posts that I shared. I admire your passion for leadership and I look forward to reading more from you.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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