Business growth and the perils of groupthink

The notion that different perspectives can improve an organisation was in no small part pioneered by management theorist Meredith Belbin. His trailblazing research into collaboration in the workplace sparked the realisation that the most effective teams tend to be those that combine a variety of views.

Belbin devised a series of “business games” to analyse management teams in action. Carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, his research laid the foundations for his theory of “team roles”. He later outlined his ideas in a seminal book, Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail.

The notion of team roles is obviously crucial to any small business looking to expand. It’s not merely a matter of filling certain positions, it’s also a matter of fulfilling certain functions in a much broader sense.

By way of illustration, consider one of Belbin’s most intriguing insights: the so-called “Apollo Team syndrome”. Taking a cue from NASA’s space programme, a renowned hotbed of brilliance and expertise, Belbin gave the tag of Apollo Team to the group apparently blessed with the brightest and most highly qualified members.

The name was one thing; the reality was quite another. Belbin discovered the Apollo Team, contrary to intuition, regularly lagged behind most of the other teams that participated in his games.

How could this be so? The problem, as Belbin concluded, is that ability alone is of limited use if the people who possess it can’t work together as a unit. Without a host of other attributes – additional skills, a knack for structure, the all-important “glue” that serves as a bond – potential simply doesn’t translate into performance.

Seen through the prism of Belbin’s notion of team roles, the Apollo Team is full of “specialists”. These are single-minded, highly dedicated individuals who are able to provide in-depth knowledge.

This might sound like a recipe for success, but it’s really only one ingredient in a much bigger recipe. The Apollo Team’s major failing is that it’s woefully devoid of “coordinators”, “teamworkers”, “shapers” and all the other elements needed for genuine effectiveness.

As Belbin’s studies clearly underlined, the true ideal lies in assembling a team with numerous ways of thinking. The alternative – “groupthink” – might produce quick-fire consensus and lots of cordial meetings, but in many instances it’s unlikely to produce results.


Multiple ideas and healthy conflict

Of course, assembling a team whose members think differently from each other is bound to cause a few complications. This is neatly demonstrated by what I call the apocryphal agitator experiment.

Let’s say we’ve built a team – one that’s capable of attaining a reasonable level of performance but which seems unable to go further. Aware a plateau has been reached, we add to the ranks a new member whose role is to question, argue, play devil’s advocate and generally shake things up.

Research suggests this should enhance the team’s performance. By offering a fresh outlook that subjects the decision-making process to greater rigour and analysis, the agitator inspires everyone to do things not only better but differently.

Yet research also suggests the agitator is the person most likely to be cast out if a team is invited to vote for a member’s removal. And what this tells us is that it can be hard to acknowledge a colleague is an engine of success when that colleague is more readily regarded as a contrarian pain the backside.

In my experience, boards of directors can be especially indisposed to novel points of view. Top-tier managers often prefer a quieter life in which everyone holds the same opinion. But we should be careful not to mistake acquiescence for certainty.

Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes, famously observed: “If you want to have good ideas then you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”

This is what we’re aiming for when we encourage competing perspectives. We want to enjoy the advantages of fruitful disagreement, constructive criticism and meaningful scrutiny.

For when all is said and done, when the bad ideas have been dissected and dismissed, what really counts is that we – not this or that individual – are right. It’s not a case of proving A wrong, making B look bad or putting C in his place. It’s a case of ensuring a business and its stakeholders benefit from well-informed decisions.

So, remember that the value brought by people with whom we might not unswervingly concur usually outweighs the irritation they may occasionally provoke in us. I ought to know, because I’ve met my fair share of such characters – and there are no doubt plenty of folk who feel much the same about me.

Yes, we all have a natural inclination to favour those who think as we do. Relatedly, too much stress is manifestly undesirable. But the perils of groupthink remind us that there’s a correlation between positive tension and team performance – at least up to a point – and that healthy conflict, not least as a business expands, is frequently just part and parcel of doing things well.


David Falzani MBE is a Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE) and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship. 

Nottingham University Business School is one of the leading UK business schools delivering the Help to Grow: Management Course. For more information, click here