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Think Different?

Fall 2012

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Real diversity means getting past groupthink.

By John Buchanan

John Buchanan is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He lives in Cocoa Beach, Fla. His last article for the magazine was “Anger Management,” the Spring 2012 cover story.

Diversity was never supposed to be limited to skin color, gender, or ethnicity. It also promised to help generate a broader range of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives—and help overcome the curse of groupthink.

Any number of recent articles and books have urged executive teams and corporate boards to foster discussion and disagreement. Only from constructive conflict, we’ve been told, can out-of-the-box opinions and ideas emerge. In short, everyone—really, everyone—agrees that groupthink should be avoided like the plague and that new ideas are as good as gold.

But even though most big companies long ago established formal diversity goals and programs, initiatives aimed at creating fresh ideas, planting the seeds of greater innovation and fostering contrarian views that serve as a hedge against costly mistakes, have—with relatively few exceptions—failed.


How is it possible that organizations have achieved outward diversity but not diversity of thought? Perhaps executives and team leaders say they want debate—and may even believe it—but find real-life pushback annoying and impractical, in the same way that every CEO proclaims an open-door policy but few follow through. Or maybe the problem is more fundamental: that the culture works to stifle dissent and push everyone in the same direction.

“The executives who say they want to bring in diversity of thought really have their own unconscious biases against it,” says Joe Santana, a New York-based diversity consultant. “They already have their own model of what the culture of the organization is and who gets points for their thinking. And no matter what they say, most CEOs and other C-suite executives do not want to be openly challenged. And if they are, they are more likely to defend their own views than they are to embrace those of others who think differently.”

As a textbook example of what typically happens, Santana cites a Fortune 1,000 CEO who recruited a mid-level executive from a competitor specifically in order to foster new ideas and diverse perspectives. Within a few months, the CEO began complaining that the new person’s values and perspectives did not fit well in the company. Shortly after that, they parted ways.

Patricia Lenkov, president of Agility Executive Search in New York, is not at all surprised by that outcome—the story is a familiar one. “Companies start out with these wonderful, noble initiatives,” she says. “And then they blow up like that because the person is not given the tools or the guidance to actually do what they were supposedly brought in to do.”

The message to others is loud and clear, Santana says—it’s best to toe the line and avoid making waves.

Life in a Bubble

One reason why fresh thinking is so hard to come by is that Fortune 1,000 CEOs are largely cast from the same mold. To illustrate that point, Lenkov invokes the board of a major U.S. company that has encountered stormy waters lately—with little, if any, change in its assessment of underlying issues and challenges. That’s because the entire board consists of CEOs, she says. It’s a diverse group in the traditional sense of the term, but they all share an overarching trait: They run big companies. “So they all think alike,” Lenkov says, “and their decision-making process is the same.”buchanan2

And given the current economic climate, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. For example, top executives have little appetite for risk right now, and as a result, they’re most comfortable sticking to what they know and what has proven effective in the past. “They play it safe in terms of decision-making,” Lenkov says. “So there’s not a lot of room for adding any kind of change or diversity of thinking.”

Orlando Ashford, managing partner at Mercer in New York, agrees with Lenkov’s assessment, adding that such aversion to different perspectives will have to change in the future in terms of the characteristics that define the most effective CEOs. “Of course, they need to be confident of their convictions,” Ashford says. “But they also need to be more collaborative in terms of how they make decisions.”

One top executive who has a unique take on the issue is Ray Dalio, founder and former CEO of giant investment-management firm Bridgewater Associates in Westport, Conn. From the day he created the company in 1975, Dalio has been a fierce proponent and extraordinarily successful practitioner of diverse thinking as an essential business tactic (see “Thoughtful Disagreement,” below). He attributes his success in encouraging disagreement and debate to the fact that he launched the firm without the prejudices or biases of any prior experience at a traditional organization. By definition, he says, a traditional CEO of a company with an existing structure that is hierarchical has a different way of thinking and follows quite a different approach. Being an entrepreneur means having to figure everything out in an independent way, Dalio says. “Rising through an existing structure or culture doesn’t usually lend itself to that.”

As a famous example of his point, he cites Steve Jobs. “He also did not go into an existing company,” Dalio says. “He started a company. If he had spent twenty years in a Fortune 500 company, he would have not been an independent thinker, and he wouldn’t be a promoter of independent thinking. He would have had to learn well and follow instructions and get the approvals and the promotions that would allow him to climb the ladder.”

Fighting the Culture War

Even when top executives do genuinely want diversity of thought, they often discover to their dismay that the company’s entrenched culture effectively kills off any such newfangled notion.

While companies say they are looking for new ideas, there is in most organizations an expectation of assimilation into the existing culture and norms of the enterprise, Santana says. Even when people with new ways of thinking and seeing opportunities and challenges enter the organization, they are generally either remolded into the company’s image or weeded out.

(The exception, albeit one with the same result, is when a board brings in a new CEO with a mandate for dramatic change. Adherence to the “old” culture is suddenly seen as obstinacy and inflexibility, and everyone rushes to declare allegiance to each of the CEO’s stated ideas, with perceived dissenters hastily pushed out of the organization.)

Although most larget companies have aggressively pursued traditional "diversity" for at least a decade, it has yielded virtually no benefit in terms of broader perspective or analysis. It has simply-and surprisingly-lead to more groupthink.

George Bradt, managing director of Stamford, Conn.-based executive on-boarding consultancy PrimeGenesis, likens that longstanding cultural reality to the old samurai culture of Japan. “If you stood out from the crowd and were wrong, they cut your head off,” he says. “If you stood out from the crowd and were right, the group ostracized you and you ended up having to commit hara-kiri. The end result of both outcomes was a bad one, so people learned not to stand out from the crowd.”

He sees a powerful parallel in today’s corporate world. “And it’s not just true of the reactions of the people above you,” Bradt says. “If you make your peers look bad and they shun you, in today’s organization—where things are so much more interdependent than ever before—you can’t succeed. You won’t last.”

Given such a formidable obstacle, Santana says, he counsels clients to assess their organizational culture before they go looking for free thinkers. He recommends they look carefully at the changes that have to be made before they will be able to bring in someone with contrarian ideas and actually leverage that person’s value.

Yet another beguiling factor is the ironic reality that diversity, in terms of race, gender, or ethnicity, does not ensure diversity of thought. In fact, although most large companies have aggressively pursued traditional “diversity” for at least a decade, it has yielded virtually no benefit in terms of broader perspective or analysis. It has simply—and surprisingly—led to more groupthink.

“Racial or gender diversity is not the same thing as diversity of thought,” Bradt says. “Even if a company is recruiting people who look or sound different, if they’re thinking the same way when they come into the company, you don’t get diversity of thought. And no matter how you recruit them, if you train everybody the same way and reward everybody the same way, guess what—you end up with the same result. You end up with the same kind of thinking.”

Moreover, because many recruits of Fortune 1,000 companies have attended the same handful of business schools and development programs, even if they were diverse when they went in, they are homogenized when they come out. Lenkov agrees that such a cookie-cutter model for B-school graduates exacerbates the problem.

And, says San Diego-based leadership-training consultant AmyK Hutchens, most savvy hires are also trained to adapt to their new organization’s culture rather than swim against the tide if they want to get on track to climb the corporate ladder.


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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.