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When cultural values lead to groupthink, the company loses

As a business shapes its public reputation, hidden conflicts can undermine its effectiveness.

The business of a corporation is no longer just business. In the past, many companies avoided staking out a public position on political and social issues. But that’s less feasible now. Public and private enterprises are increasingly called upon to take a stand on behalf of their employees and their communities. In some cases, this means establishing a company point of view on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration, race relations, and environmental policies. Even operational decisions, such as structuring parental leave, choosing which holidays to observe, or deciding where to locate a manufacturing hub, carry implicit support for particular values — for example, a company may choose to avoid doing business in countries that do not support freedom of expression.

But you can’t assume that everyone in a company agrees with the stand it has taken, even if there is a clear logic and rationale behind each decision. Different people perceive values in different ways, and this clash of attitudes can remain under the surface, unvoiced and unresolved, with some employees feeling that their perspective isn’t recognized. Even seemingly innocuous values such as “courage” and “excellence” can have this effect. The value of courage could dishearten people who prize temperance and stability. The pursuit of excellence could be seen as encouraging perfectionism, which can hinder employees’ nimbleness and agility.

If you’re a leader taking a stand on values in your enterprise, you have a seemingly Herculean task: to engage all your employees, regardless of their attitudes and backgrounds. It’s not possible to achieve your goal by excluding the people who disagree with the prevailing corporate point of view. Nor can you avoid values altogether these days; some topics, including diversity and inclusion, LGBT identity, immigration, and trade relations, may relate directly to your core strategies. Instead, the key to success is authenticity: You must create a context for dialogue in which the organization’s leaders and employees can talk openly and genuinely about the values of the enterprise, and why they agree or disagree with those values. Only then can you diminish the virtue signaling, groupthink, and other forms of deceptive organizational communications that make it difficult to adopt values in a fully authentic way. 

Groupthink and Its Hidden Conflicts

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of highly visible public events that people interpret and react to in different ways and with very strong feelings. Often these reactions diverge dramatically when social values are changing. People react as much to the tone and civility of the public debate as they do to its substance — and with good reason, because the tone reflects strong feelings that people often can’t or won’t put into words.

One example of such a public event took place in Australia in November 2017, when a national plebiscite about same-sex marriage was held. In the months leading up to the vote, the venerated Australian tennis player Margaret Court publicly expressed her views against same-sex marriage and said she would boycott Qantas Airlines, which supported a “yes” vote. Court had become a well-known Pentecostal pastor, and she cited her religious beliefs for her position. In the outcry that followed, some critics proposed taking her name off the Margaret Court Arena, which is part of the complex where the Australian Open is played. Court complained that she was being bullied, and even some people who disagreed with her felt that she was being treated too harshly.

After the vote, much of the public drama subsided. The plebiscite passed by a large margin, the government approved same-sex marriage the next month, the arena was not renamed, and the boycott threat faded away. As companies translated these new rulings into HR policies, many LGBT-friendly employees undoubtedly felt relieved and recognized, some for the first time. But others who had religious concerns similar to Court’s may have felt unrecognized and forced into invisibility. And that probably affected how they felt about their employers.

It’s important to say here that this article is not a defense of, or attack on, any particular strategic, political, or social stance, including gay marriage. The point, rather, is to show what happens inside an enterprise when an issue cannot be ignored. If there is no safe way to talk dispassionately at work about emotionally charged values, those topics become like George Orwell’s “groupthink”: unchallengeable in public. This creates hidden conflicts that drain away people’s commitment and lead them to feel cynical about the enterprise. Groupthink is especially likely to take hold if people depend on the organization for their livelihood and if they fear their colleagues might attack them for voicing opposing points of view.

Why should organizations care about groupthink? Why not just let the prevailing point of view stand? That may be an expedient solution, but it can cause problems in the long run. An innovative enterprise needs employees who feel that they can contribute freely and bring their whole selves to work. If people are expected to rise above the status quo and challenge their competitors, they also need to be able to challenge one another constructively. Moreover, when some people don’t feel that they can disagree publicly with the prevailing values, it affects a company’s ability to recruit and retain a diversity of talent. Finally, and most importantly, groupthink doesn’t really change minds. It just gives the appearance of agreement, while people privately become more entrenched in their attitudes.

Groupthink doesn’t really change minds. It just gives the appearance of agreement, while people privately become more entrenched in their attitudes.

One symptom of groupthink in a company is a phenomenon called virtue signaling. People espouse the prevailing point of view with overzealous enthusiasm in order to show, to others and themselves, that they belong.

The term virtue signaling was coined in 2015 by writer James Bartholomew as a pejorative to describe the habit of declaring an opinion without taking action to support it. “George talks about helping homeless people, but he’s just virtue signaling,” a critic might say. “He just wants to look like he cares. If he really cared, he’d be doing more about it.”

Within organizations, however, the phrase has come to have a more compassionate meaning. Virtue signaling is a natural response to the pressure employees feel to conform to workplace values. For example, an organization may introduce a new strategy for “customer-centricity.” Suddenly, in presentations and team meetings, employees are ardently talking about how much they care about customers. But privately, they aren’t sure about the new approach. It feels vaguely uncomfortable, or they think it could compromise product R&D, or they wonder whether the company can master it. Because they don’t feel supported enough, or personally brave enough, to raise these questions out loud, they pretend to have more conviction than they feel. The same sort of dynamic can happen with initiatives involving innovative thinking, environmental sustainability, or any other ideal espoused from the top. Employees cheer for it visibly, but the resulting groupthink leads, paradoxically, to less serious commitment than there was before.

Leading Inclusively

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni described this type of dialogue as “healthy conflict” that reflected the ability to meaningfully debate and discuss substantive issues with a high level of trust and respect among the participants, even among those who disagree. “Failing to engage in conflict is a terrible decision,” wrote Lencioni, “one that puts our temporary comfort and the avoidance of discomfort ahead of the ultimate goal of our organization. Conflict is always the right thing to do when it matters.”

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Unfortunately, there aren’t many visible models of healthy conflict these days. Communities and large enterprises inevitably contain people who disagree in fundamental ways and who don’t want to hear from those who hold opposing views. In public forums, including many universities and media outlets, constructive debates are shut down, sometimes on the grounds that the conversation will be too painful or that the opposing group is illegitimate. But this just makes groupthink even stronger. It is much better to bring painful issues to light and deal with them constructively. We need more conversations that go beyond virtue signaling or preaching to the converted. We need discussions, public and private, that represent both sides of a disagreement and raise the mutual level of understanding so people can work together even if they have genuinely irreconcilable conflicts.

It takes a high level of managerial acumen to make these types of conversations work, especially when highly charged issues are involved, and particularly in a business context. That’s why the place to start is with leadership skills. We have found three capabilities that can help leaders manage diverse perspectives.

1. Mental agility. Often associated with the brain’s “executive function,” this is the capacity to recognize the existence of different perspectives and the reasons different people might hold them. People with a high level of mental agility consistently invite others to voice opinions, perspectives, or expertise that might challenge their own views. They can do this while still remaining true to their own principles. A good indicator of mental agility is the ability to debate a topic from an opposing point of view, treat it as if it were your own, and then use that experience to help you consider the nuances of your own perspective.

2. Cognitive humility. This is the ability to recognize your own unconscious associations and correct the errors of judgment that result. For example, if you were raised in an environment where a majority of people in leadership roles were male, you might tend not to recognize the potential of women leaders. Some people unconsciously undervalue the opinions of people who speak with a strong foreign accent, because in their experience individuals with accents were not associated with powerful positions.

To practice cognitive humility, you need to bring a third-person perspective to your own first-person experience: to see your own views as incomplete — because everyone’s are. Managers with a high level of cognitive humility are often gifted at mentalizing. That is, they can step back, even at heated moments, to reflect on their own thinking and that of others around them. What am I thinking, what has led me to this perspective, and how is it similar to and different from the thinking of my colleagues? What does this suggest about how we might address our differences?

3. The ability to foster psychological safety. This is the skill of creating contexts where everyone feels heard and valued. People feel safe to contribute perspectives even if they differ dramatically from the organization’s prevailing values. Several conversational habits help leaders create psychological safety. These include treating everyone in a group with respect, inviting them to participate, modeling constructive disagreement with the status quo, being supportive when people demonstrate vulnerability, and showing vulnerability oneself when appropriate.

Of course, these skills can also be used in inauthentic or destructive ways. (For instance, you don’t want to accuse someone of virtue signaling in front of a group.) But when practiced wholeheartedly, by a leader who is committed to the values of the enterprise, these habits will enable genuine conversation. Not every conversation will lead to a resolution, and people won’t necessarily understand one another’s perspectives any better. But they will recognize the organization as a place with a true commitment to its employees: a place where people respect one another, even in disagreement, and are able to bring themselves openly to work.

The problem of values conflict — in business or in government — will not go away. Nor will a company’s values remain static. Given the constant change affecting every business, leaders need to continually reflect on their own values as well as those of the organization. Fortunately, the necessary skills can be developed. Leaders with mental agility, cognitive humility, and the ability to foster psychological safety can create a robust context for open dialogue.

Indeed, in some companies, collaborative leadership of this sort actually becomes one of the company’s core values. Given the incompleteness of everyone’s perspective, you recognize that everyone is entitled to an opinion, there is no “right thing to believe,” and yet we have to cohere in a common direction. Therefore, we accept the responsibility to question or challenge ideas, while still retaining our ability to move forward. If we can voice that value in the abstract, we can more easily achieve it in practice.

Author profiles:

  • Maud Lindley is the founding director of Serendis, an Australian consultancy specializing in executive coaching, mentoring, leadership, and inclusion. Based in Sydney, she is a former investment banker.
  • Jeffrey Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author or coauthor of three bestsellers: Brain Lock (with Beverly Beyette), The Mind and the Brain (with Sharon Begley), and You Are Not Your Brain (with Rebecca Gladding).
  • Malcolm Thompson is a senior consultant and executive coach with Serendis. He has held leadership roles in Investment banking for major financial institutions in Australia, London, New York, and Asia.
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