The End of Workplace Groupthink?

Groupthink in the workplace has been studied at length, indeed, we have known about it for at least fifty years, have studied it, categorised it and even given it a name: The Abilene Paradox. Management training used to warn CEOs and managers about it and how to identify it and prevent it. So why on earth is it rife in just about every employer in the country?

“Can you help us with our HR team, they are out of control?”

This incident was related to us by a senior HR Consultant. The question was from a CEO of a large public sector employer. The scenario was that the CEO and board in question, was getting increasingly concerned about their HR Department which appeared to be neglecting its primary duties and rather pushing radical ideological agendas on the employees and enforcing compliance by creating a false consensus around those agendas. The situation was causing huge unrest and resentment among the staff, engagement and productivity were at rock bottom and multiple grievances had been raised by Employees holding religious faiths. The brief was to find out what was going on and fix it.

Since the Cass Report was published there has been a slow dawning among senior leaders that the policies and training that exists in their organisations may be contributing to the fractures in employer/employee relations and relations between colleagues, causing serious issues for workplace harmony and productivity. Increasingly. leaders are worried and are looking for solutions to what appears to have been an over reach by their HR Departments. Such concerns are now in the mainstream press with almost daily articles highlighting the problem as in today’s FT

None of us are any stranger to cancellation culture and it’s only the most disingenuous or ignorant who deny it is a problem. We’re very aware of the public figures who have been on the end of various campaigns. Break with the New Orthodoxies, be they Gender Self ID or Public Health Mandates, even if you are already an expert in these fields, and expect to be cancelled as a heretic and beyond contempt. When Nobel Prizewinners are treated in such a way, what chance does a delivery driver for a supermarket have? Or a nurse? Or a teacher? Or a plumber or joiner for that matter?

The thing is, it is one thing to go after a public figure, it is quite another to go after someone without a public platform through which they can defend themselves. There is a general air of disquiet in the corporate world at the moment as Directors, business leaders and CEOs across the private and public sector, are waking up to the fact that their organisation has and is essentially persecuting employees for personal opinions and beliefs.

With the CIPD, the organisation which ostensibly manages HR Professional Qualifications, appearing to be obsessed with every social justice cause to the extent that it has woven them into the fabric of everything it does, it is hardly surprising that HR Departments are enthusiastically inflicting Unconscious Bias training and other highly controversial and divisive ideas onto their workers. Often HR Managers themselves are too afraid to speak out, too afraid to challenge the consensus and to point out that it is not the role of HR to socially engineer their employees. An atmosphere of fear permeates the world of employment, say the wrong thing and you will also be condemned. This even affects the most powerful and is why our CEO clients typically only want to engage in the strictest confidence.

Cancel culture, be it imposed on a public figure or a normal person, requires confirmation bias bubbles to exist. When it happens there is no cool head saying ‘now wait a minute, folks’, just a headlong rush to stone the heretic. Such bubbles develop their own manufactured consensus and then project that onto society, ‘just because we all agree it must be true.’ It’s made worse as when cool heads interject, they find themselves accused of the same heresies. We’re interested in how this impacts the workplace so how does this happen?

A reasonable issue arises – let’s say gay rights and the anti bullying policies of the organisation are initially written to reflect this, legally you cannot discriminate against someone based on sexuality so it is perfectly in order to ensure that employees don’t abuse or discriminate against gay colleagues. Such was the case for a good few years after the Equality Act 2010 went live. Parliament has ruled and as a society we no longer allow such discrimination in law. Settled. But then, around 2015, the idea of ‘allyship’ started to enter the discourse, driven by activists working for (often publicly funded charities) it was no longer sufficient to be merely accepting of gay colleagues, no, you now had to be an active ally, often to the embarrassment of those same colleagues. Allyship, believed by many to be the ‘right thing to do’ gets added to the consensus, confirmed by the bubble of peers, cooler heads are terrified into nodding along.

I can recall working in an HR department in an NHS Trust in 2017. Pride Newcastle was coming up and the Trust was giving staff time off to prepare for it and encouraging employees to attend Pride to show solidarity. I had been out of the corporate HR world for a few years and was quite shocked that it was implied that whilst you were entitled not to attend, if you did not attend then it would be seen as a black mark against you. That such a position by the employer was in direct conflict with their own Bullying and Harassment Policy and also opened them up to religious discrimination claims from Employees, didn’t seem to have crossed the minds of those driving ‘allyship’, including the HR Director herself and the threat was allowed to stand, unchallenged.

Some employers even knit ‘allyship’ with ‘minority groups’ as a ‘corporate behaviour’ that needs to be adopted and demonstrated to gain promotion within an organisation. Again, if any employee can make a link between their not demonstrating ‘allyship’ because it is against their faith and that failure to do this cost them a promotion, the employer has a bit of a problem.

This has been going on for years: MeToo, Corporate Environmentalism, Brexit, BLM, even public health policies surrounding Covid. Employers are increasingly taking the position that it is their role to ensure that their employees are ideologically aligned. Confirmation bias bubbles are also driving false consensus over political issues, like Trump or the Tory government. 

Brexit was a good one. After Brexit, a family member of mine was attending a Global Town Hall via Zoom. Her employer at the time was a large global American corporation with operations around the world. During the Town Hall the CEO expressed hostility towards the Brexit vote, implying that those who voted for Brexit were frightful racists and how fortunate they were that none of them worked for the company. This prompted a bit of a backlash from a disappointingly small number of employees who pointed out to the UK HR Team that as a majority of British voters had voted for Brexit it was not beyond the grounds of imagination to consider that some British employees also voted for Brexit and that the big boss, an American who knew little about the nuances of the arguments around Brexit, effectively accused them all of racism. An embarrassed UK HR Director raised this to the American CEO who was ‘genuinely shocked’ that he may have upset employees and apologised. (There were some who thought that he was actually shocked that he had such people working for his business, but we will leave that for conjecture). My point is that here was an American CEO, so fixed in his confirmation bias thinking that he thought it was appropriate to opine on the Brexit result, not in the legitimate: “how will this impact our business moving forward and what do we need to do to manage any risk or take any opportunities” but to personally attack those who voted for Brexit? This would never have happened even 10 years ago.

The answer is complex but it has a lot to do with groupthink confirmation bias bubbles. “It must be right because 99% of people who agree with me think it is right” is the logic. Those of us in the world of management theory call this The Abilene Paradox, more on that below. So that CEO he was so convinced by his confirmation bias bubble that 1/ Brexit voters were racists and 2/ his business, of course, would never employ anyone like that! That he felt confident enough to consciously add it into his annual speech to his global employees and, here’s the thing: nobody called him out on it before he spoke! And this was because his entire UK management team, who unironically have been inflicting Unconscious Bias training on their staff, either agreed with him. “Oh yes, Your Imperial Highness, those clothes have such a wonderful cut!”. Or were too intimidated to challenge him. 

The thing is that none of this is new. The dangers of ‘groupthink’ have been known to the management world for at least fifty years and were outlined and defined by Jerry B. Hartley in his article: The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement (1974 Organizational Dynamics). The Abilene Paradox is a collective fallacy, in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of most or all individuals in the group, while each individual believes it to be aligned with the preferences of most of the others. It is becoming increasingly obvious that manufactured consensus, driven by what I’ve described above, is creating the conditions for the Abilene Paradox.

In 2008 this was further explored in “The Abilene Paradox After Thirty Years: A Global Perspective” published in IEEE Engineering Management Review; and the conclusions  warned organisational leaders of the dangers of the paradox and how to spot it and identified five components:

  1.  The first component refers to mutual agreement of a group that the current situation is not acceptable. However, on the individual level, the members may be satisfied with the existing setting after they have compared it with proposed alternatives.
  2. The second component stands for ineffective communication within the group when several members express considerable support for a decision because they assume that is the desire of others. This process of communication reinforces assumptions that individual thoughts are a minority in the group.
  3. The third component of the Abilene Paradox is the vocalisation of group sentiment which arose from inaccurate assumptions or incorrect interpretation of the “signals” given by other members.
  4. The fourth component refers to the decision-maker’s reflections on the actions taken, usually in the form of questions as follows: “Why did we do this?”, “How can we justify our decision to others?”.
  5. The fifth component refers to the defeat of the group leader to poor decision making in order to avoid making similar decisions in the future. 

There are several factors that may indicate the presence of the Abilene Paradox in the decision-making process:[4]

  • Leaders who publicly do not fear the unknown. Such arrogance leads them to go along as they do not possess sufficient understanding of complex problems. Rather, they stick to the “that sounds good to me” attitude.
  • A group with no-conflict or no-debate type of decision-making. When such views are supported in the cohort, the lack of diverse opinions becomes the foundation for mismanagement of agreement. This can be visible by the emergence of the “I will go along with that” attitude.
  • Overriding leaders and a strong organisation culture. A strong leader and solid organisation may become a powerful asset, it may also intimidate other members of subordinates to the point of submission. This results in the inclination of supporting more dominant ideas.
  • Lack of diversity and pluralistic perspective in a group. Homogeneous groups tend to be conformal. Such groups tend to achieve consensus rather than searching for the “right” decision.
  • Recognition of a dysfunctional decision-making environment. Management in this environment has lost control, as the directional prerogative of management has succumbed to wanting to be liked by avoiding conflict.
  • The feeling of a “messiah” in the organisation and action anxiety on the part of management. When the group handles complex tasks, there is usually one person or a small cohort within the group who has required expertise to manage in this situation. As a result, there is a tendency to acquiesce to them.
  • The development of a “spiral of silence” in the organisation. The spiral of silence occurs when one’s perception of the majority opinion in the organisation suppresses one’s willingness to express any challenging opinion against the most visible point of view.[4]

There are ample examples of where the Abilene Paradox has played havoc from the Watergate Scandal to the Hillsborough Tragedy and subsequent cover up. Yet there are countless examples playing out in the workplace today. So why, given we know the Abilene Paradox is a real issue, have organisations been ignoring it? Well, firstly it isn’t taught to HR people unless they have been to an excellent business school, therefore, they may be disquieted and have concerns but lack the knowledge to elevate the issue to risk, concerns are easily dismissed, risks – not so much. Secondly, the idea of the Abilene Paradox has been somewhat replaced by the Orwellian idea of ‘Groupthink’ this is because the majority of people pointing out that we have the Paradox in our society are not trained in management theories, they are cultural commentators writing for the general public and therefore apply Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ word to define it. And ‘Groupthink’ is an excellent definition. However, it doesn’t do us any favours in the workplace because all too often those referring to “Groupthink’ as a concept are dismissed as conspiracy theorists. Orwell is possibly both the most over quoted and erroneously appropriated writer and as a result quoting him can be dismissed as hyperbolic, even though his conclusion is valid.

The Abilene Paradox is a far more valuable and powerful definition of the phenomenon as it manifests in organisations because it specifically breaks down how it happens and most importantly, what to watch out for.

This is why CEOs and Directors are asking for direct support, outside their own HR Teams. How do you know your policies and training, implemented by management enthralled to the Abilene Paradox. don’t inadvertently directly or indirectly discriminate against employees? 

This is why FairJob UK has set up its Corporate Services, a confidential support service for boards of large employers, to ensure that their HR Policies and Training courses are both lawful and do not discriminate or isolate any employees. In an era where we all sit in confirmation bias bubbles it has never been more important for business leaders and employers to constantly check that the Abilene Paradox does not exist in their organisational decision making and if it does, remove it. How does the Emperor know he is actually wearing any clothes if there is no one there to tell him, especially if the tailors gaslight him?

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