Groupthink: Why project leaders with high status fail more often

New research shows that high-ranking managers are rarely questioned when implementing projects. This could lead to groupthink, and increase chances of failure.

Projects led by high-status managers are more likely to fail than those with a middle-ranking status, according to research by Balazs Szatmari at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).

The research revealed that leaders gain mixed results.

Either they get the buy-in of everyone on their teams, or they fail because people are less critical of these projects and turn a blind eye to their flaws.

In contrast, project leaders with a middle-ranking status typically produced the best results. More often than not, middle managers are challenged by their superiors and their team members, which helps them create fool-proof plans.

The perils of ‘groupthink’

Teams are reluctant to challenge high-status managers on key issues because of their position. This is attributed to a phenomenon called ‘groupthink’.

Groupthink occurs when the desire for harmony overrides individual opinions and even common sense when it comes to critiquing plans, or sharing an unpopular opinion.

To avoid groupthink, it is important to have a process in place for checking the assumptions behind important decisions.

A checklist to avoid groupthink

  • Examine the objectives of the decision.
  • Explores alternatives.
  • Encourage ideas to be challenged without consequences, such as fear of being fired.
  • Examine the risks if the decision is made.
  • Re-examine rejected ideas and make sure they were dropped for the right reasons.
  • Build a backup plan if this decision doesn’t work.

Whenever there is a new idea, this has to be sold to top management and support has to be gathered throughout the whole organization.

Project managers have to sell the idea and get people on board, and this is where status can help to gather the necessary support to implement the ideas.

Project ideas can come from anywhere

The RSM research studied the video games industry to find out how the status of a project leader might influence the quality of projects.

“We were interested in whether having a high status as a project leader makes a project better and whether these leaders can gather support for high and low quality projects,” says research lead, Szatmari, a PhD student at RSM.

The research showed that status is beneficial because it helps leaders get the necessary support for their project and it speeds up the implementation process. However, this status has a downside as it can allow senior managers to get away with bad ideas or bad execution or framing their failures as success.

“This is something organisations should be aware of when they assign the managers of projects or even when they evaluate projects in the past.”

When implementing new decisions, read about how six-hat thinking can help.

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