Bosses Think They Are Funnier Than They Really Are (And That's a Problem)

June 12, 2017

Laughing at your boss's bad jokes is an innocuous example of groupthink.

Your boss cracks a joke. What’s your reaction?

For most of us, it’s to laugh, regardless of if the joke was funny or not. After all, most of us want to stay on our boss’s good side.

Now, that’s a pretty harmless outcome. But it’s a symptom of one of the most well documented and most damaging forms of unconscious bias in the workplace: groupthink.

Explaining groupthink

When most of us think of unconscious bias, we tend to think of hiring and promoting people who are like us. That’s a very real phenomenon with very real consequences, such as 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs being men.

But that’s just one form of unconscious bias. In her LinkedIn Learning course on the subject, Instructor Stacey Gordon explained another common and destructive form of unconscious bias: groupthink.

Instinctively, we are wired with a desire to fit in. That extends to fitting in at work and conforming to the leader, which can cause groupthink. (Quick caveat: That’s a big reason why bosses are so important. They have a tremendous impact on the behaviors of their team.)

What can happen if groupthink goes unchecked?

The boss gets more and more positive feedback on their ideas, and therefore believes in his or her own ideas more and more strongly. That can lead to them trusting their gut too much and no one on their team stopping them when they have a bad idea, because their employees want to remain on their good side.

“It means that people are willing to go along to get along,” Gordon said. “Creativity and independent thought can fly right out the window, and you end up with a pool of people who may have all agreed with an idea, even though those in the room knew that idea was terrible.”

The consequences can be catastrophic. For example, psychologists cite the ill-advised Bay of Pigs operation as a classic case of groupthink. Same with the downfall of the once-successful airline Swissair, which was shut down in 2002.

How to counter groupthink

There are several ways to counter groupthink. A few Gordon outlined are:

  • Have someone on the team serve as the role of devil’s advocate, who intentionally takes the opposite position of whatever side the group is leaning toward.
  • Have the person with the most authority in a meeting avoid stating their opinion first, to promote more of an open discussion.
  • Reserve a chunk of time to critically question any big decision before finalizing it.
  • Invite in an impartial third-party and run your decision by them.
  • Provide some way for employees to give anonymous feedback on both their manager and projects.

The biggest key of all though is having leaders who cognitively guard against groupthink by encouraging conflicting opinions and building a diverse team. And that comes down to taking unconscious bias training themselves and being confident enough to hear dissenting views.

Unconscious bias is universal, innate and will continue if left unchecked. Click here to watch Gordon’s full LinkedIn Learning course to learn how to overcome unconscious bias.