How Quiet Voices Help Defeat Groupthink


Most people talk; some people talk a lot.

Indeed, “dominance” is one of two social dispositions that has reliably been a path to power, leadership, and influence. It’s not even limited to humans. Among other social mammals, the loudest or (perceived to be) strongest individual usually takes the top place in the hierarchy. In organizations, talking a lot is frequently taken as a proxy of expertise, and often a false proxy at that.

But the other route to power in human social groups is “prestige”: having the information or know-how people need to reach their goals. Getting these knowledgeable voices expressed wields a great deal of influence. It helps teams arrive at big ideas — or get clear on how leadership’s big ideas can actually be implemented.

This is a key finding from our recent white paper, “The Business Case: How Diversity Defeats Groupthink.” The paper explores the benefits of dissenting voices and diverse perspectives in boosting efficacy and ridding teams of catastrophic decision making.

Dissent isn’t ‘rocking the boat’

When meeting participants only hear the most dominant person’s voice, a team can easily succumb to premature consensus, or groupthink. Hence the need for a diversity of ideas, especially from people with traditionally quieter voices. When quieter voices speak up, the spell of groupthink has a much better chance of being lifted.

While dissenting might feel like rocking the boat, more often it’s actually preventing a set of decisions that can lead to a shipwreck.

More good news: Leaders can summon dissent without much actual conflict. Experiments find that when leaders wait until the end of a meeting to give their opinion about how to approach a problem, the rest of the team will suggest significantly more solutions to the problem than if the leader had spoken first.

Delayed commentary from the leader is a form of amplification. It turns the whispers of the team into declarations that can have extraordinary power. While leaders may think that the people who sit quietly in meetings have nothing to say, the real problem may lie in the culture of the team or organization. Leaders who promote silence through their dominance don’t give quieter folks the room to be heard.

Instead, leaders must be more passive in holding the floor, and more active in creating the conditions for others to speak. Or, if shier employees don’t like the spotlight, leaders can work to accommodate those employees’ specific preferences. They can say things in advance like “You’ve told me some really great ideas on this issue, and I’d love for you to share them with the group.”

When leaders make this active effort, they work to ensure the best ideas — not just the loudest ones — rise to the surface.

This article is the fifth installment in NLI’s new series, Groupthink: The Master Class, a 6-week campaign to help leaders understand the science behind identifying — and eliminating — groupthink.

Authors: Drake Baer , Chris Weller

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