Embrace the contrarians

Avoiding groupthink is worth the aggravation

Fred Mael

As a CEO, especially as a company founder, sharing decision making can often be annoying. You have thought through the pros and cons on an issue and you want to move quickly, yet you feel duty-bound to run your idea by your management team or staff. Inevitably there are one or more members of your team who always seem to see things differently. Call them devil’s advocates, naysayers, or contrarians – their common feature is that they frustrate you and make you explain and justify your position more than you want. They cast doubt on the path you favor and may dilute some of your excitement. You may even wish they kept their doubts and alternative scenarios to themselves. So here is reality: unless they are fueled by evil or self-serving motives, you should be very grateful for these employees, as they are often the safeguards of your enterprise. Even if you end up overriding them, you are better off for having heard their point of view. Most of all, the alternative of no dissenting voices is certainly worse.


Groupthink is a term coined by William Whyte in 1952 and later popularized by Yale research psychologist Irving Janis in 1971. The latter 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”. In other words, pressure within a group to have everyone agree to a course of action (rather than having the minority agree to disagree) leads to stifling of any concerns about a course of action. The members of a decision group become so close (or awed by the leader) and so concerned about being “on board” that they stifle or suppress any qualms that the group’s decisions may be disastrous, illegal, or even harmful to other people.

Some symptoms of groupthink are:

Overestimation of the group’s superiority (or strategy or product)

Illusions of invulnerability

Great pressure for member uniformity

Stereotyping opponents as pathetic and naysayers as cowards

Ignoring danger signs or contrarian views

In a series of books on the subject, Janis and others implicated groupthink in a wide range of disastrous political and corporate decisions ranging from Pearl Harbor to the Bay of Pigs to the 2001 collapse of Swissair.

Real and scorecard diversity

One way to avoid group think is to promote real diversity within your organization. The point of having a diverse management team is not to achieve informal quotas of visibly different groups in an organization. Rather, the goal is to have access to different viewpoints, so that the CEO will be exposed to a variety of opinions and possibly to the worldview of different constituencies and stakeholders. These divergent views could reside in people of different ethnic groups, but they may not, especially if the members of the various majority and minority groups all came from the same colleges or were protégées of the CEO. Achieving diversity of thought may require drafting those with different occupational backgrounds, different social and political attitudes, or different personality types in order to avoid groupthink.

Some devil’s advocates play for the devil’s team

Not every naysayer is of benefit to you. Some are not useful because their objections are aimed primarily at personal gain, fear of loss of status, general opposition to change or even personal jealousy and animosity toward you. Those who oppose all changes because it might complicate their lives or alter their hold on power are not necessarily making valued contributions. Some people have quirky personalities or too much time on their hands and just like to argue for the sake of arguing. We’re talking about those who genuinely want to help you achieve your goals but feel the flaws and faulty assumptions in your plans should be exposed. They want you to consider the possibility of improving plans or if need be, shelving them. You should be discerning enough to know the difference between self-serving individuals and the truly valuable employees who are willing to challenge you if that is what it takes to save you from your unbridled enthusiasm.

In a well known line from Godfather II, Michael Corleone says: “My father taught me: ‘Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.'” If we may paraphrase, it would be: Keep the advisors who see things like you and will enthusiastically support your decisions and put them into action, close to you. But keep those with alternative views, those who will make you see possible flaws and warning signs in your plans, even closer.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. (www.smartceo.com). This article appeared in the June 2013 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.