I’m on the road to nowhere
Whenever a team meets, there are two dangers: an outcome no one really wants or slipping into complacent groupthink. Both involve the sacrifice of beneficial results and informed decision-making. However, there is another way…
British Indie Band, The Subways, could’ve had the average team meeting in mind when they wrote their song ‘I’m on the road to nowhere’
Rather than being energetic, productive moments in the working day, team meetings can often feel pointless, as the collective will to live slowly expires, through frustration or apathy. It happens to teams no matter their industry, sector or size.
From decisiveness and determination to disintegration
John was a chief executive on a mission. He’d been recruited to overhaul this business, turn it around and make it lean and mean. He’d been given the mandate to do it and the freedom to make tough calls and cuts. It was hard. It took guts, but it was worth it and in the end the business stabilised.
But that was five years ago and now he and his executive team had grown complacent. True, the cash reserves from his early cuts had cushioned them and it wasn’t as if they’d reverted to the bad old ways. Nevertheless, slowly and inexorably, the business was backsliding and no one was confronting the decline. That’s because everyone in the executive team wanted to protect their own priorities, each defending their roles and areas of ownership.
Their meetings had become predictable and boring. Meanwhile John had switched from heading his organisation towards a clear destination, to keeping it bobbing along, hoping that any movement was a good sign. The company had entered a phase of complacency that even its shareholders tacitly accepted. None of them wanted to ask the necessary but disruptive questions that might further threaten the business.
From cruise control to coasting
What happened to John’s team happens to a number of executive teams: they graft to achieve an extraordinary result, and then, exhausted by the effort, they coast. Coasting happens when people can’t face the hassle of working through a conflict to get to a better solution. They enjoy being back in their comfort zone.
Are you going places?
‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,’ said Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat as long ago as 1865. But it’s a maxim that many modern teams still need to take on board.
In 1988, another writer, Jerry Harvey, a consultant from Washington DC, wrote about a fateful team journey that illustrates one of the drawbacks of working in a group. He described a team that didn’t or couldn’t decide where it was heading and so all of them ended up on a long, hot journey to Abilene, Texas.
Thing was, no one in the group wanted to go to Abilene, but nobody said anything because they all assumed that everyone was keen on the visit. So that’s precisely what happened.
Harvey called this The Abilene Paradox: when no one in the group wants to do what the group ends up doing. Yet this absurd outcome often occurs when individuals labouring as part of a group don’t have ways of raising difficult questions or controversial issues. So instead, they slip into a bland, complaisant and dangerous form of groupthink.
How to improve team decision making
There are 4 simple rules teams can adopt to avoid sliding into groupthink:
- Always create clean contracts. A contract is the explicit, agreed rationale for the meeting. Always start any meeting or team event with some straight talk about the purpose of the conversation and stick to your agenda.
- Never move forward on an action, or a decision without an explicit response from everyone. Do not take silence for agreement. Always give people time to voice their opinion. Always look each team member in the eye and ask, ‘Is this what you want?’ and demand active participation. Not all decisions have to be unanimous and not all decision making needs to be through consensus, but decision making needs to be an active process, not achieved by silence and default. Building active assent from each person also reduces the likelihood, later on, of someone denying his or her involvement in the process.
- Always try to learn more. Feedback is your friend and criticism will illuminate. Asking for opinions and opening yourself up to potential disapproval or censure, is a sign of strength, not weakness. Receiving feedback from people outside the team, can also contribute to better decision making and counteract the group’s blinkers. So welcome other stakeholders to the table, seek their input and value the contrarian view.
- Be grateful for the team member who asks the difficult question. Be a leader who has people around you who sometimes make you squirm. It’s good to feel uncomfortable, so let them speak. Keep your sharpest critic sharp and don’t let their astuteness become diluted by familiarity. Creating a culture in your team of respectful challenging is the best antidote to groupthink. Always welcome fresh, diverse and different commentary and questions.
Getting the group going
John did eventually wake up. He learnt that by following these 4 simple principles he could make his team perform much, much better. He stopped being on the road to nowhere and started to recognise that as a leader, his role was to keep his team moving towards a distinct destination. Even if it was tough, and meant many (productive) arguments along the way.