When school leadership teams come unstuck

School leadership is fast and furious full of plot twists and unexpected turns. Decisions are made at high speeds with little or no time to pit stop for adjustments. Emotions run high, and the stakes to improve school performance are even higher. There is no question of a leaders drive to want the best for students, their families and communities. And to maximise this effort, leadership teams need to be working in harmony and show togetherness. Or do they?

Surely logic tells us that if a leadership team is in turmoil fighting for the iron throne or completely dysfunctional then progress can expected to be limited if not non-existent. But can this also be said of those leadership teams on the other side of the spectrum? Common sense says that a team that gets along and works well together will bring success. However, this is not always the case. Yale psychologist Irving Janis says that the “super glue” that bonds good teams together can also be what gets them stuck.

It’s great to have nice teams but nice teams can also stop real challenge from happening in decision making. When team members begin to avoid conflict, decisions can go unchallenged that could potentially lead to bad decisions being agreed. Janis refers to this phenomenon as “groupthink”.

To illustrate the consequences of groupthink, Janis points to the NASA Challenger explosion in 1986. NASA always believes in safety first and if there is any doubt for a safe launch they will stop it. Or will they? Days before the Challenger launch engineers expressed concerns about the O-rings seals. This should have been enough to postpone the take-off. Instead, NASA discounted their concerns and put pressure on the engineers to reverse their “no-go” position. After further pressure, the engineers changed their minds and said the shuttle was ready to fly.

That day changed NASA. The challenger exploded after take-off when the O-rings malfunctioned. The engineers were right in their assessment but the symptoms of groupthink gripped the team that lead them to make the wrong decision.

Other examples of groupthink can be seen in the American invasion of Cuba at the Bay of the Pigs, the Soviet Union’s response to the Chernobyl disaster or, most recently, the financial crisis.

School leadership teams are far from being immune from groupthink. In fact, they are a prime location for it to fester. High pressured, intense scenarios feed the risk of groupthink but its symptoms are detectable (if your team is not already in too deep!).

8 symptoms of groupthink

  1. Overconfidence can make individuals or teams feel invincible or special
  2. The moral compass of the team is believed to be more superior than those on the outside of the team
  3. Other peoples’ views or warnings are discounted because the team is more rational than them
  4. Anyone not in the team is pre-judged and looked on suspiciously
  5. Direct pressure is negatively applied to team members who raise a concern or doubt which sends a clear message that any opposing opinions are not valued
  6. Eerie silence of self-censorship plagues team decisions
  7. A belief that everyone in the team is in agreement
  8. Self-designated mind-guards that protect the leader or team from any information that may raise an alarm

Walter Lippan once famously said “when all think alike, then no one is thinking”. It is difficult sometimes to stick your neck out on a limb. It is only natural to not want to upset someone. And the word conflict doesn’t have the best reputation. It is usually associated with arguing and fighting but conflict, like challenge and debate, can be healthy.

Healthy conflict doesn’t necessarily mean it will lead your team to make great decisions but at least made-decisions will be better informed.

To get started, here are five countermeasures to keep groupthink at bay.

  1. If you are leading a team working party remain impartial. Your opinion could unintentionally lead to everyone agreeing with you.
  2. Encourage healthy conflict and debate. People want to be heard. Even if the team decides to go another way at least everyone one will feel that they had an input.
  3. Assign someone the role of devil’s advocate. That way it eases the tension and removes the awkwardness of anything being said controversial.
  4. Get an outside opinion. Simply asking people what they are thinking creates buy-in but it also tests and challenges team ideas.
  5. To promote varying views, setup sub-teams to evaluate strategy or tackle a problem.

Blog photo credit: Cooperate Finance Institute