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7 ways successful leaders can create a culture of diverse thinking

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Author: Sam Reece – CEO at Vistage

CEOs must make dozens of decisions each day. But the path to decision-making is not simply about ensuring everyone on the team agrees. When the focus is on agreeing instead of problem-solving, groupthink can set in. Groupthink acts as a barrier to creativity, stunts growth, and leaves employees feeling disempowered and unmotivated. Employees in companies plagued by groupthink don’t feel safe speaking up authentically. They struggle to feel connected to their organisation’s mission, their work, and their ability to make an impact.

I’ve observed that the best leaders know successful solutions reflect real discourse and diverse perspectives. They actively work to prevent groupthink from finding its way into their company culture by cultivating the following practices:

1. Surrounding themselves with people who think differently

This practice keeps groupthink from creeping into a company’s culture. Individuals who have unique backgrounds encourage one another to consider distinct possibilities outside the realm of their own experiences.

2. Listening

Great leaders set the tone and ensure everyone in the room feels heard by encouraging open, respectful and accepting dialogue. Those who master listening can make equal space for extroverted and introverted employees in brainstorming sessions and discussions. The best ideas are not always the loudest.

3. Being transparent about biases

This starts from the top. Vistage Chair David Zerfoss says, ‘If you’re the smartest one in the room, you’re in the wrong room.’ Successful leaders are able to let go of the limiting belief that their ideas are the best and the brightest by default. Instead, they are transparent about their pre-existing biases and allow others to challenge them, as long as they do so respectfully and thoughtfully.

4. Seeking input from employees at all levels

It is easy to get insulated by one’s direct executive team. Every employee should feel like their voice can be heard, even if they don’t have a seat at the executive table. Hearing feedback directly from employees who are regularly interacting with customers is irreplaceable. Similarly, bouncing ideas off of trusted peers from other industries offers fresh and unique insights and safeguards against preconceived notions and biases.

5. Learning from failure

We know that those who take risks often fail before they succeed. When employees who take thoughtful risks and fail are punished, employees get the message that they should not take chances. This kills innovation and idea generation.

6. Asking the right questions

Leaders might think their job is to attend meetings and pick the most popular ideas, instead of asking clarifying questions that really seek to understand. Great leaders challenge their teams to explain the possible implications of any ideas. Making informed decisions takes work, time, energy, and discernment. Relying on groupthink can be a corner cutter.

7. Remaining curious and fostering open dialogue

Executives may think their job is to sell and persuade, rather than open up dialogue. When I first started out, I believed leadership consisted of coming up with an idea, assembling a team, and convincing the team to rally behind that idea. I later learned that wasn’t the right approach. The most effective leaders remain curious and open the conversation up to dialogue and dissenting points of view.

I have continuously witnessed the power of diverse thinking in my own career. At a previous company, we were presented with an opportunity to expand into software. Our executive team held an off-site meeting to discuss it, and we all agreed not to pursue it. But then, one executive raised his hand and respectfully asked that we reconsider. He requested a short window of time to meet with colleagues and create a proposal for our consideration. Two weeks later, he presented a plan that single-handedly changed the course of our company’s future, for the better. To think, I was moments away from closing the books on a great idea, had it not been for an individual who looked at it a bit differently than the rest of our team.

Great leaders know when it’s time to stop collecting data and start making decisions. With so many opinions and perspectives on the table, there is a point where one must say: ‘Thank you. I have everything now. Let me take some time and think it through and come back with our plan.’ Once a plan is in place, it’s important to re-engage with those who may have been opposed during the process. Acknowledging their contributions and offering insight into the decision — why it was made, and what benefits it will bring — helps encourage people to speak up again in the future.

When leaders are transparent about their biases, give their team space to provide opinions, and challenge everyone to think through implications, it fosters diverse thinking, collaboration, and ultimately, accountability. CEOs who overcome groupthink and leverage a wide variety of perspectives in their decision-making process propel their organization to success.

This story first appeared in Entrepreneur and featured on the Vistage Research Centre.

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