How Mistakes Can Help Your Team

I personally hate to admit that I am wrong. My ideas always seem to be so insightful when they wake me from a sound sleep at 3:00 AM. 

It is a struggle not to become defensive when someone challenges me. I want to "win" the argument and demonstrate my mastery of the subject. 

If I give in to the defensiveness and "win" it can be a disaster.

To understand why, let me take you back to the days when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. He and his staff were discussing an invasion of Cuba in 1961, an initiative that originated in the Eisenhower administration. As each member of the cabinet gave input to the discussion, everyone supported the Bay of Pigs Invasion Plan.

It was a disaster. It not only failed but it increased tensions between the US and Cuba and set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later and perhaps set the stage for the cold war.

Social Psychologist Irving Janis, who studied the process, noted that most of the members of the young president’s cabinet had serious reservations about the plan. The reservations were in written documents that were completed prior to the cabinet discussion. But these objections were not raised because the cabinet members did not want to be contradicting the leader of the free world. This failure to speak up was given the label "groupthink."

Groupthink describes the tendency for team members to minimize disagreements and hide problems. It is a problem that is accentuated when the team is led by a strong personality.

How can a team know when it is becoming a victim of groupthink?

1. There is an illusion of invulnerability. Members of the group begin to act as if there is no way to fail in accomplishing its objectives. This is more than self-confidence. This is the overconfidence Goliath had when he saw David.

2. There is an illusion of unanimity.  When groupthink is operating, the members often believe that everyone on the team is in agreement. Those with differing opinions do not have a voice. Sometimes this fosters an environment where "backbiting" and "gossip" can flourish.

3. Stereotyping the competition and seeing them as ineffectual and morally inferior.  Competitive rivals are underestimated. Stereotyping of opponents is used to belittle competitors. The group "overconfidence" blinds members to real competition.

4. There is a fear of disapproval.  Disagreements are hidden because team members fear 
rejection. In this context of fear, very little energy is available for creativity.

5. There is a shared effort to rationalize and dismiss negative feedback from the outside.  When information that is contradictory to the group is presented, it is dismissed as irrelevant or it is re-explained to preserve the beliefs of the team. New ways of thinking about a problem are rejected without consideration.

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Breaking the hold of groupthink in a team requires that we all risk doing what we hate to do: admit that we make mistakes!

This does not mean that I accept sloppy work from myself. It means that I acknowledge that I am learning and growing like everyone else.

As a team leader, acknowledging a mistake or offering a self-critique, early in a meeting, sets the tone for the group to explore the full range of options that team members bring.

A while ago I was invited to participate in a debriefing with police officers from several local municipalities and the sheriff’s department after an incident where a suspect was wounded while being taken into custody. 

Initially, the discussion was very guarded as each officer defended the judgments that were made. Then, one of the veteran officers took the risk of acknowledging his awareness of the stress he was under as he approached this very unpredictable suspect. He described his "tunnel vision" and feeling that the sounds of gunfire were distant from him as he approached the suspects vehicle.  He was candid about the effort required to stay focused, despite the physical fear he experienced.

The tone of the discussion immediately changed. The other officers also admitted they too felt the effects of the stress. 

In the end, the discussion was a much richer experience for the departments. The officers could understand the complexity of the judgments being made as they attempted to coordinate their actions. In this case no one made significant errors during the arrest, but the discussion was very beneficial to the young officers who learned a great deal about how to keep themselves focused in a dangerous situation.

We do ourselves a disservice when we hide our struggles and cannot admit our mistakes. We often can learn more from admitting the real problems we face, and face those problems together. 

Sharing these problems and admitting our mistakes breaks "groupthink." Team members become more accepting of alternatives. The creative process expands. The "winner" is the team.

"It turns out you need other people to know things. You have to share with other people. Two people, working together, learn faster than individuals alone. Pairs solve problems faster than individuals can."
–Bill Miller, Steelcase’s Head of R&D