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The surprising leadership skill no MBA can teach

The surprising leadership skill no MBA can teach

Values are often cast as poorer cousins to hard skills like strategy, but authentic leaders with the acute self-awareness and internal discipline required to withstand the siren song of the group are rare.

How many people do you know who can:

  1. Identify the biases they bring to the table and understand how they can be used (for good or bad)?
  2. Listen to and respect all views while recognising ideas are not equal?
  3. Bring others along but not at the cost of sound decision-making, even when that means standing alone?
  4. Encourage a style of dissent that does not veer to chaos or produce fake consent?

Coherence is so strongly associated with survival and its value so deeply embedded in management practice that we would rather deal with the future consequences of a bad decision than the discomfort of going against the group in the here and now.

This is called groupthink and it’s what happens when members of any in-group try to minimise conflict by agreeing to something without critically evaluating alternatives. Disagreement is often perceived as disloyalty, rather than as a path to better decision-making.  

Groupthink has been implicated in many disasters, from the Bay of Pigs to the GFC. What has emerged in much of the research that follows these events is that many people had doubts about what was happening but did not speak out, sometimes to remain ‘in’ but also because of an understandable concern they might lose their jobs.

The pressure to conform can be overt but subtler cues are also effective – fidgeting, silences, a ‘cut the air with a knife’ atmosphere can prompt people to agree simply to defuse the tension.

There is a cost to standing apart. And it’s not just egotists who insist we conform. Any of us can confuse our ideas with who we are and feel attacked when they are criticised, inadvertently compelling people to agree or risk displeasure. While ideally we would disassociate the self from the idea, it is much easier said than done.

One reason we assume groups produce better decisions than individuals is because we think the sum of many ideas is better than one. However, groups do not function as we would expect. According to Ulrich Klocke groups develop biases for shared information, expressing a contrary view risks expulsion.

We are also more influenced by who delivers the message than its content (called the argument from authority). A bad idea championed by an influencer can quickly grow legs.

A leader who understands this bias and genuinely wants input will often hold back during ideation so that they do not anchor the group. They can also use the bias constructively to move the group forward when required. Identifying the fine line between constructive use of a bias and manipulation requires the right intention, discipline and judgement.

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Dionne Lew

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Dionne Kasian-Lew is a respected thought leader and pioneer in social media leadership. She is the CEO of The Social Executive, a consultancy advising boards and executives on adapting to the digital and social era.