Walking the tight rope – individuality vs group conformity

One of Amazon’s core workplace values is ‘disagree and commit’. Their theory is that ‘harmony is often overvalued in the workplace’, that it can stifle critique and creativity. Hence, to create space for reforms and revolutions, they agree to disagree. They are dedicated to rebellion and individuality. Though their approach has been much criticized, there is ample research that underlines the errors of group think, and supports Amazon’s case.

Group thinking is akin to the herd mentality – following without questioning. Such conformity has a lot of value in maintaining the general health of groups, but seldom allows for the uniqueness of each employee to come through. Thus, decisions are made by a leader or majority, people are self-silenced, and the strongest voices guide the group’s process. But with millennials today, this practice is falling out of favor in workplaces. Everyone wants to have their say, be validated for ideas, see their thoughts through to impact, and experience success.

However, there is much value in the wisdom and effort of the collective as well. How then can we balance a group’s thinking and decision making process, with that of the individual’s? Here are some ideas:

  1. Make questions work. Crumbling under peer pressure or desire for approval, many golden thoughts are left unexpressed. If you are really keen on having diverse data, ask questions which have the potential to derail thought processes. For example:
  • What is the exact opposite of this idea?
  • What is a decision you wouldn’t dare take?
  • What is a step you’d like to take, but are totally unsure of?
  • If you had 15 seconds to choose, which way would you?
    (Start the timer for real, and do a show of hands!)

These questions provide the ability to view the problem from different angles, and bring out the unexpected. This technique is called ‘priming’, where the leader of a group encourages information disclosure from the beginning, to ensure critical thinking by triggering different possibilities.

  1. Choose a Devil’s Advocate. While groups mine through opinions and choices, having someone constantly challenge their thoughts would really help get to the bottom of things. The job of a Devil’s Advocate is to put forth the worst case scenario, or ask ‘why for every decision the group makes. A spinoff of this method is a red team – a sub-group whose sole purpose is to find loopholes or road-blocks in the plan the whole group is leaning towards. Red teams are an excellent idea in many contexts, especially if they sincerely try to find mistakes and are given clear incentives to do so.
  1. Get people to role play. This is a technique crafted by Cass R. Stein, author of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, where he suggests that when different group members are assigned roles to play, they will elicit a variety of information. This works even better when people are moved into the space of representing their expertise, like marketing, research, management, etc. He says, “In such a group, sensible information aggregation would be far more likely, simply because every member would know that each of the others had something to contribute.”

Extremes of individuality and group thinking are detrimental to any fruitful planning and decision making process. What we need to aim for is a fair balance between the two – a process that empowers individuals to express diverse ideas, while helping the group collectively adopt the best. And above are our two cents to making that happen. What would you do?

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