Radio 4 did an excellent three-part programme a couple of weeks ago on the history of the Euro and the roots of the current crisis. If you are interested in the subject it’s well worth listening to the whole thing but the comments from a French civil servant working on the Euro agreement struck a chord (listen to Episode 1 from about 22:05). It was an open secret, he says, that Europe’s southern tier was not ready for the Euro but no-one was prepared to challenge them. Why not?
Because we have had, in Europe, a big political correctness problem of etiquette. The good old tradition of not pointing the finger at any other member state to make sure that the other member state will not point the finger at you.
How often do you see that in management teams? No-one wants to shatter the group consensus so no one says what everyone is thinking. They let things pass when they should challenge. This happens even when the issues being brushed under the carpet are serious and a threat to the organisation’s existence. Social norms are powerful; people are extremely reluctant to challenge them. As Malcolm Gladwell says, people will, sometimes literally, crash and burn before they break these unwritten rules.
Most of you are probably familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development; Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Teams go through this at varying speeds depending on the wider culture, the personalities involved and the urgency of the task. Storming is the most difficult stage because it’s uncomfortable. People argue, confront, jockey for position, score points of each other and sulk. Sometimes they have open rows. Most of us don’t like conflict so we tend to want the Storming stage to be as short as possible. Which is where the problems start. Team members often bury their differences rather than dealing with them. Leaders, anxious to get to the Performing stage, will close down dissent. The consensus created during the Norming phase is, therefore, imposed by the leader or a powerful sub-group, rather than shared by the whole team.
This is fine, up to a point, and can be adequate in some situations. But for those teams dealing with longer term strategic issues, such groupthink can become a hinderance. Chief executives and business unit heads usually claim that they have cohesive management teams but often, what looks like cohesion is simply suppressed conflict.
This penny first dropped for me a dozen or so years ago. My (now) good friend Mike Vernon challenged our team, “Why are you all being so polite to each other?”
Strange question, I thought. We were a cohesive and supportive team. Why wouldn’t we be polite to each other. But, of course, we weren’t supporting each other, we were colluding with each other. We were all engaged in that little dance in which I won’t challenge your unsubstantiated and anodyne statements if you don’t challenge mine. Eventually, I recognised the behaviour in our team and I’ve seen it dozens of times since.
To break out of this inertia, teams have to go back into another Storming stage. Someone has to take a risk and start asking difficult questions. This can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable. Breaking group norms and taking the team back into the Zone Of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD), even if it is necessary, will not always be popular. In my experience, the difference between a good facilitator/team coach and a great one is the ability to take a team through this second Storming stage. Once a team has been through that stage, instead of settling down to a comfy consensus again, they learn to make use of their conflicts to make better decisions. As one executive described it, “We have more productive fights now.”
It is tempting to bury disagreement and to reach a superficial group consensus, especially when there is an urgent task to be done. I can understand why management teams do it and I can see why the visionaries of the EU would rather everyone ignored the obvious questions about the suitability of Greece and others for monetary union. But group consensus and social norms can be dangerous. The resulting code of silence can see companies going bust, planes crashing into mountains and, in all probability, the near collapse of at least one European state.
Like many a management team, the EU rushed to Norm before it had properly Stormed. The result, as ever, was collusion, comfortable debate and the avoidance of challenge. For any group, especially one taking such important decisions, the result is likely to be disastrous. There is a warning there for companies, governments and management teams everywhere.