Down the Up Staircase: Go Against Groupthink
(With acknowledgement to Bel Kaufman, author of “Up the Down Staircase”)

“Up the Down Staircase” is a 1965 novel and 1967 film about the bureaucracy encountered in a school system when a student is punished for expressing his individualism by committing an infraction—walking up the staircase the school designated as the down stairway. Following this premise, I use going down the up staircase to represent going against what everyone else thinks or does. This includes encouraging individuals on your team to share their ideas when they seemingly contradict the thinking of the rest of your group.

When you work as a team to develop and implement ideas, a challenge arises as group members vocalize their thoughts. The challenge is that as group members either give their approval or express displeasure, individuals in the group rethink their points of view. They tend to move their thinking in line with the rest of the group, or silence themselves from expressing their views when they contradict those of the group. When individuals in a group adapt the thinking that reflects that of the rest of the team, or suppress their ideas because of a strong, persuasive leader or intense pressure from others, a phenomenon called groupthink sets in. Individuality is lost to the group.

The danger in groupthink is that creative ideas get lost. Hidden weaknesses and threats are overlooked when groupthink leans toward only positive viewpoints. Strengths and opportunities are overlooked when groupthink leans toward the negative. Groupthink leads to team dysfunction, indicated by stereotyping, complacency, rationalization, censorship, and silence. Groupthink creates an illusion of team unity when individuals experience conflict within themselves.

How do you get past groupthink, especially as a leader of a team or Board of Directors, so that you hear everyone’s ideas without their being influenced by how the group as a whole thinks? Try this exercise with your team the next time you solicit ideas from them.

1. Present the issue, problem, or situation for which you seek ideas from your team.

2. Allow a specific time frame for discussion and questions to clarify your objective. Do not allow solutions at this point! The discussion is to clarify, not solve.

3. Next, allow a specific time frame for all individuals in the group to come up with ideas that meet the objective, however wild the ideas might seem. Encourage no prejudgment at this point.

4. Have everyone write their ideas down and turn them in…everyone!

5. Ask one person to scribe by compiling all ideas onto a master list on flip chart paper or projecting on a screen.

6. Have the group work through the ideas to eliminate duplicates.

7. Ask each individual to silently identify the top 3 (or top 5) ideas they believe to be the ones the group should address. Yes, this is somewhat subjective because the responses are based on each individual’s viewpoint.

8. Have each individual rank their choices in their priority order—most important / viable to least.

9. Collect everyone’s results—the ideas they choose and their rankings.

10. Have a scribe create a collective compilation of ideas and rankings. The highest-scored idea(s) are the ones the group as a whole chooses to pursue.

This technique for pulling ideas from individuals in a group without incurring groupthink also considers individuals who are shy, insecure about their contributions, or who are unable to express themselves verbally. You as the team leader get ideas you may not get otherwise, and some of the ideas may very well be the ones that have the most impact on your results, your bottom line, and your success.

Going against groupthink allows individuals who have ideas that go down the up staircase to express their ideas, unencumbered by how the rest of the group thinks.

Sylvia Henderson
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Author's Bio: 

Sylvia Henderson is Chief Everything Officer (CEO) of Springboard Training—your springboard to personal and professional development. She is an author, workshop facilitator, speaker, and business woman.