Leadership Management / Strategy Talent management

If everyone agrees, proceed with caution

Ah, consensus. It’s what we all strive for, isn’t it? That moment when every key decision-maker agrees, then straps on a guitar and sings “Kumbaya” in unison. An entire organization moving as one toward a common goal — what could be better than that?

Anything, says Margaret Heffernan.

The acclaimed documentary producer and director is also a deep thinker in the areas of leadership and the future of business. And today, she says that future is jeopardized by groupthink.

Heffernan says we are biologically drawn toward people like us. We marry them, we hire them, we work with them, we align our goals and visions with them.

The problem is, we close ourselves off to alternative points of view in the process.

“We are most familiar with ourselves,” Heffernan told the crowd at the 2015 edition of the acclaimed DigitalNow Conference in Orlando. “Anything like us instantly earns a high degree of trust.”

That also presents a high degree of risk. If we’re surrounding ourselves with similar viewpoints, we’re excluding alternative viewpoints. That’s a dangerous practice — especially if our consensus viewpoint ends up being wrong.

Lauren A. Rivera agrees. An associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Rivera offered a similar argument in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times.

“Some may wonder, ‘Don’t similar people work better together?’ Yes and no,” Rivera wrote. “For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.”

A better path, Heffernan said, is to encourage “devil’s advocate” thinking. Find the folks on your team who will put forth disconfirming points of view — people who will challenge the status quo and ask difficult questions.

In the end, Heffernan said, every viewpoint is important — not just those that are aligned with leadership. The businesses that win are the ones that embrace all points of view, not just the popular ones.

“If you want your teams to see more and succeed, you need the participation of everyone, not just your superstars,” Heffernan said. “We achieve great things when we allow everyone on our team to think as freely and courageously as they can.”

Put another way: Consensus is great — as long as all viewpoints have a say in how it’s reached. A room full of yes-men will go nowhere.

Heffernan expands on her ideas in her TED talk, “Dare to Disagree.” Watch it here.


William D. Sheridan