Ideas Inbreeding: Why Managers and Board members are failing

Introductory Notes – Preventing the failure of Board members  and managers

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Recently a friend asked me how I can explain the benefits to industry and organizations of the applied philosophy work I do. It is obvious that many mangers and board members in large organisations (such as international banks) are failing in different ways, but why?

Why Managers and Board members are failing

I remember a client from 1991 who was an independent and distinctive thinker working in a small organisation. He was very successful. Some years later he contacted me to do some work with him and his team in the BBC. His thinking had changed – no longer distinctive and independent, his language and thinking had become BBC thinking and language.

All industries and organizations tend to develop their own jargon and/or technical language, often for speed and ease of communication. But along with this language comes a way of thinking. It is not necessarily that the way of thinking itself is limiting – but rather that when everyone talks in the same way everyone begins to think in the same way.

Ideas inbreeding

When people’s ideas become more and more alike we find a kind of  ‘inbreeding’ of ideas.  This  results in group decisions become impoverished because there is not enough variety in the ways of thinking and the ideas of the group members. And this, in turn, leads to ‘group think’.

There is a well-documented phenomenon of managers / Boards recruiting people like themselves. However even when managers recruit people very different to themselves there is a pressure to adapt to the environment, and slowly the new staff begin to think like the rest.

Because – human beings are biologically adaptable to the environment in which they find themselves. This means that without conscious intervention people will adapt, they almost have no choice.

As well as all the tremendous good consequences (the evolution of human beings and culture and science et al), this biological tendency to adapt to the environment can have bad consequences such as: women adapting to abusive relationships so that it feels normal to them; teenagers adapting to gang culture; soldiers adapting to dehumanizing the enemy etc.

I would suggest that one of the bad consequences is the tendency towards ‘groupthink’ within organisations.

Groupthink

William H. Whyte, Jr. coined the term ‘groupthink’ in March 1952, in Fortune magazine: “What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.

In 1972 Irving Janis defined ‘groupthink’  as “… the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. Groupthink is a term of the same order as the words in the newspeak vocabulary George Orwell used in his dismaying world of 1984… the term refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.” 1

Without conscious intervention people will adapt, they almost have no choice

One way of ensuring that a group has different ideas is to bring in new people from very different backgrounds and experiences and cultures. This idea lies behind the call for more women on the Boards of large companies. But it can be impractical to bring in such different people because expertise is also needed in every major industry. So for example if one needs marine engineers with experience of running large complex organisations , there is not a huge pool of people to choose from in order to bring in diversity of experience and thinking.

Creating Diversity in Thinking

 One of the things I do with groups of managers and Board members is to elicit difference. I train them to think individually in different ways and in new ways,  and to think differently from each other. I create diversity in thinking in ‘mono-cultural’ conceptual environments. Because it is difficult and uncomfortable for people to change their thinking, and also psychologically difficult to be different to their peers, this work can take time. The benefits are enormous.

 Read some comments

 B. R.  Productivity Improvement Specialist @theKPIteam.co.uk

If you haven’t considered this before it will really make you think about it from now on. You may say “we challenge all fixed ideas”, but then do it with a conditioned mindset.

A. B.   Project Director

Our minds have been conditioned over a period of at least 4 million years. Of course in this quick changing environment our conditioning is not ideal for now. There are thousands of ideal options. The point you are making is can you provide the best one?

A. B.  Project Director

Managers are not failing only the services being offered by the manager is not ideal for the situation. The manager should either change or the manager should be changed. To find the ideal manager for the quickly changing environment is the real challenge.

Dr. Catherine C. McCall BA(Hons) MA MSc PhD FRSA

Hello Angus and Barry,

The problem I have seen with large organisations is that even when the ‘ideal’ manager is found, after a while they inevitably conform to the environment around them. I have found it less likely in small companies and even less in ‘one-man’ operations. This (I think) is partly to do with the kind of people who start their own businesses being more independent in all ways including their thinking – more independent than the average. But also because they are not subject to the pressures of the group creating its own ethos either deliberately (e.g. the VISION) or just by nature because that is what people in groups do.

And yes I do provide the best way to develop independent thinking, difference in thinking, more creative thinking and the ability to generate alternatives – in Boards and management of medium and big companies and organisations.

A.B. Project Director

How do you measure your effect as an improvement from micro to macro levels?

Dr. Catherine C. McCall BA(Hons) MA MSc PhD FRSA

How to measure my ‘effect as an improvement from micro to macro levels’

Well formally one would have to set up an empirical experiment with matched control group (e.g. company or division) and experimental groups. The control group gets no intervention; in experimental group1 I would intervene by improving the thinking of the Managers; experimental group2 would have an intervention that degrades the thinking of Managers; and exp. group 3 would have a random intervention such as painting their offices to account for the Hawthorne effect. We would need to pre- and post- test the managers thinking. Then we would need to measure the outcome of their judgements – how their judgements affect the companies or organisations – efficiency, turnover, profit, happiness – whatever you wish to measure. Then we would need to do some very fancy statistical analyses to find correlations.

It would be interesting to do such an experiment. However most of my clients simply see that their improved thinking leads to good outcomes for them and for their organisations – without need of measurement.


1 Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-14002-1.

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