How to Beat Groupthink in the Boardroom

Consensus in a boardroom can also mean directors are not asking the tough questions. Follow these six tips to avoid too much unanimity.

Most directors would agree that diversity of thought is key to good governance. But even the most diverse board, with a variety of backgrounds and ages represented, can still fall prey to conformity of thought. As the headlines can attest, boards that fail to have vigorous debate will inevitably miss red flags they ought to have seen—and that shareholders are relying on them to uncover and deal with. Here are some tips from the experts to help get the discourse flowing.

1. LEAN ON THE CHAIR: The best antidote to groupthink is often a chair who is universally respected and conscious of the importance of including diverse viewpoints. “They’re the ones who really have to manage the conversation,” says Rusty O’Kelley, global head of the board advisory practice for Russell Reynolds Associates. “They need to be great facilitators, not necessarily the most senior people or the ones with the best titles. They need to be the best at pulling ideas out of people.”

Also, in onboarding new members with diverse viewpoints, the lead director or board chair must “set a tone of inclusion and convey that this new director will bring will bring new ideas and that the board must be open to that,” advises Paul Winum, senior partner for board and CEO services at leadership-development firm RHR International, “and then manage the group dynamic in a way that this is nurtured.”

2. MANAGE TENSIONS: All those efforts to introduce fresh viewpoints will backfire unless you take steps to ensure diversity brings value, not discord. “You need structure in managing the debate, and then you really get the best outcomes,” says strategy consultant and board advisor Lars Sudmann.

Adds Donald Maruska, a management consultant who was the founder and CEO of three Silicon Valley companies: “The big challenge of mindset differences is that it’s really going to [test] the decision-making process of the board because you will have people saying the world is flat and others saying the world is round, and you have to get beyond that. Otherwise, members of diverse boards simply chew themselves up.”

3. DRAW EVERYONE OUT: Simply bringing new perspectives into the room doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be aired in conversation, notes Stewart Landefeld, a governance expert who is a partner with the Perkins Coie law firm in Seattle. He adds that chairs may need to be proactive in extracting insights by going around the table and asking each board member for his or her thoughts.

“That approach gives everyone an opportunity and can exhaust the diverse thinking in the room,” Landefeld says. “It’ll bring out diversity of views from non-talkers. And if people don’t want to take additional air time because their views already have been expressed by someone else, they can say so.”

4. CREATE CHEMISTRY: Deloitte divides boardroom denizens into four different personality types that the consulting firm says should be represented on every board for “business chemistry” that brings the best decisions. They are “pioneers,” who offer a wealth of new ideas and are inspired and engaged by change; “guardians,” who seek stability; “drivers,” who pursue challenge; and “integrators,” who crave connection.

“It’s a way to move beyond just demographic typing of diversity, and you can pretty easily see how these multiple different perspectives can benefit boards and organizations,” says Suzanne Vickberg, senior manager of the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience.

To get the four types to work together in making a particular decision, she suggests giving each personality a little bit of what makes them tick: Set an optional “preliminary” discussion that will satisfy “guardians,” for instance, but don’t get to the nitty-gritty until later, pleasing orally minded “integrators.”

5. TRY ‘BRAINWRITING’: For this group-interaction technique, board members write down their reactions to a proposed action before orally discussing them. “Brainstorming is a classical part of discussion,” Sudmann explains. “But someone says something that anchors the whole thing, and then the discussion gets messy and doesn’t lead to anything, and people hate it. But with ‘brainwriting,’ you really show the breadth of ideas and views without biasing and pre-anchoring anyone.”

The method helps anchor perspectives so that ideas and perspectives aren’t squelched or influenced by the first few opinions aired. “You let everybody breathe and think, and by design you see that you have a breadth of viewpoints,” says Sudmann. “But you’re not influencing anyone yet. It takes away that bias. It’s not for every discussion, but it can be extremely powerful for deciding future strategy.

6. GAMIFY THE PROCESS: It may sound gimicky, but game-like exercises are a useful tool in tapping diverse viewpoints. One way, for example, is to use a visual aid at that illustrates the absence of an important viewpoint. Maruska suggests putting an empty chair at the board table and labeling it with a stakeholder interest or perspective that isn’t present.

“Directors sometimes find it difficult to get out of their individualistic thinking,” he explains. “So with the empty chair, the chair[person] can ask them, ‘If we’re putting our minds in the framework of this missing stakeholder, what might they say? And do we, in fact, have enough information to make an informed opinion about what they might say, or do we need to get some advisors?’ This simple step can help a board avoid a myopic decision.”

Another exercise is to engage directors in a business-like form of “the telephone game” in which, before a board member offers an opinion on an issue, he or she must summarize what the previous speaker just said. Like the old parlor game in which everyone is amazed to find how individuals can inadvertently distort a story as it circles the room, forcing directors to articulate one another’s perspectives helps ensure that they’re truly understood and considered.

“This prevents anyone from mapping their own thinking onto what was just said,” Maruska explains. “Because oftentimes we map the wrong thing.”