Groupthink happens for many reasons. The group may recruit in its own image. Members may conform because job security depends on conformity; or for more subtle reasons, such as group culture or well-recognised psychological biases such as status quo bias, confirmation bias, herding and the availability heuristic. And that is before considering the effects of the individual's character and the effect of a dominant or charismatic person in the group.
Modern corporate governance requires boards to include 'independent' directors but this does not necessarily mean that independent directors will think independently. A recent McKinsey report found that only 14% of almost 700 directors surveyed included "independent thinking" as a selection criterion for choosing a new director. This is not a propitious starting point.
Add the ability of groupthink to lead 'independent' directors to lose their ability to think and reach conclusions independently and it is no surprise that many of the corporate failures analysed in 'Roads to Ruin' the Cass Business School report for Airmic, included groupthink among their causes.
Whilst some bad decisions remain latent vulnerabilities for years, our research suggests that about half will manifest into a crisis within 5 years. When it becomes apparent that the board has made a bad decision, the Chief Executive is often the board's first sacrifice, and this is probably one reason why average CEO tenure seems to stick below 5 years. In bad cases, it is not unusual for the Chairman to be next in line.
Since ignominious ejection from office often terminates careers, it should be important to CEOs and Chairmen to reduce the risk of avoidable bad decisions.
In her prize-winning essay, Siobhan Sweeney, a Judge business School MBA candidate, has suggested a solution: companies should combat groupthink by appointing a "Contrarian Director" (CD) whose explicit role is to be an independent source of critical thought and analysis for the board. The concept is a development of the roles of Roman Catholic Church's 'Devils Advocate' and the Advocate General of the European Court of Justice.
Ms Sweeney's proposal includes the following elements:
- The CD's main role is to analyse and report formally to the board on any important proposal;
- CDs are full voting board members with long experience in independent analytical thinking and the character required to deliver unwelcome views should this be necessary;
- An 'Institute of Contrarian Directors' (ICD) should be established with robust governance to set standards for CDs and devise a standard Charter under which CDs can operate effectively, including rights to seek information;
- The ICD will, on request, recommend a suitable CD from a pool of people who have never been directors other than in a CD role and have not departed from the ICD charter;
- Such CDs are appointed for a single, non-renewable 3 year term and are paid as professionals;
- Where an ICD-nominated CD is appointed, the ICD Charter is to be incorporated into the company's governance regime and the CD specifically instructed by the board to act in accordance with the Charter, and
- Where a CD finds the company obstructing his or her effective operation, the CD is required to resign, making a public statement that she or he was unable to operate effectively.
The concept will appeal most to companies whose self-critical leaders embrace success in the long term, measured in decades, as a corporate goal. Such leaders are keen to avoid avoidable errors. It will be an anathema to leaders who are insecure, egotistical, arrogant or dominant, especially those whose personal goals share the much shorter time horizon of their incentive plans.
Given patterns of corporate failure, it is the latter's companies who would arguably benefit the most, but they are the least likely to adopt the concept. Regulators may wish to take note.
We would welcome your comments on the merits and weaknesses of Ms Sweeney's proposal as well as your thoughts on how it might be improved.
Anthony Fitzsimmons is Chairman of Reputability LLP and author of “Rethinking Reputational Risk: How to Manage the Risks that can Ruin Your Business, Your Reputation and You”