Groupthink: The death of Creativity and Individuality in America

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

U.S. companies have lost their competitive edge, and in almost every single industry right now they trail behind their overseas competitors. From the most basic household goods, and industrial products, to the more recent consulting and IT, countries like Japan (automotive), China (consumer goods), India (IT and consulting), Brazil (biofuels), are taking the lead and right now are clearly leading innovation, production, and marketshare. While we could look at many factors the magic word for today’s U.S. business employees seems to be “team player”, and anyone who does not conforms to the tested (and proven creativity killer) method, it’s no longer a welcome member of any organization.

The Raise of the New Groupthink

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist.The New York Times, 2012

Teamwork - Courtesy of the NY Times

Teamwork – Courtesy of the NY Times

It seems that in the country of individuality, where people fight every day for their freedom of (speech, religion, and press), their right to bear arms, to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, right to due process, right to a fair and speedy trial and confront their accusers, protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and many others; the right to be an individual is being squeezed out of the corporate culture and replaced with a “me too” attitude.

While this “be a team player” mantra may be godsend to foster the development of good teams, it is also a great cover for mediocrity, management by consensus, groupthink mentality, and lack of innovation, creativity, and organizational development. And the worst possible consequence is that the rule of the game in a team oriented organization is the fundamental need to network and buy relationships in order to advance, instead of focusing on actual performance indicators (since those are individual scores not shared with the team at large).

It seems that the whole idea about Team Players  originated back in the 1940’s out of a book called “Your Creative Power” by Alex Osborn, already on his 80s and a partner in one of the most innovative firms at the time in the competitive world of advertising. According to the NewYorker one of the most popular ideas on his book was the recommendation of “organizing your people into a tea to create ideas”, which according to the author will actually be the source of incredible bursts of creativity and innovation. While in principle in the 1940s the idea sounded great, by 1958 Keith Sawyer had already debunked the idea with an experiment at Yale, where he concluded that

Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas New Yorker, 2012

High Performance Teams

US Seals. Courtesy of

US Seals. Courtesy of

Being a Team Player can also be the child of the fascination with high performance teams, such as sports or special military units, where a group of highly trained and capable individuals outclasses their opponents and when confronting “regular people” have an almost guaranteed win on their hands. What many people forget is that while those individuals can successfully play as part of the team, they are potentially some of the most individualistic people in the planet, driven by their own desire to succeed, and willing to be members of a team on an almost equal basis only. There is a fundamental difference between those High Performance Teams, and the expectations of many mediocre corporate executives that teams, any team, will somehow magically become high performance just because they were put together and forced to work on an issue.

Groupthinking Team Players High Performance Teams
Overestimate their own importance Allow the group to be independently evaluated by others based on performance results
Decisions are making by obtaining the team’s approval, not based on their own merit Clear decision making process, either the leader makes the final decision or it is a democratic process.
Anyone outside the team is wrong (unless is on a higher level) Allow individual members to get feedback from experts and constituents outside the group
Individuals censor themselves so the team unity and unanimity is maintained Encourage members to raise objections and concerns even if it challenges the status quo
Members will protect the group leader by hiding information or attempting to please the manager It is a team’s effort, everybody collaborate and nobody is at risk, or needs to be protected.
Lack of clear goals and objectives Clear goals and objectives to all of the team members focused on the collective mission

If you want to be an entrepreneur what should you do in regards to teams?

Like with many other prescriptions, it depends!

Team building. Courtesy of

Team building. Courtesy of

One of the first things that needs to be remembered is that in isolation very few of us will be able to accomplish as much as we do by being members of a team or society. There are very good reasons why people are organized in groups, and why isolated individuals generally do not progress as much as society does. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of underperforming group teams, plagued by politics, groupthink, and lack of individuality and creativity. If you are an entrepreneur, you need to carefully consider what you need from your team even before you start actually building the team, and not being afraid of developing a high performance team that can help you actually reach your goals. While high performance teams are composed in many cases of highly capable people, with some individualistic tendencies, we need to remember that your role as an entrepreneur and organizational leader is actually that to become the teams LEADER”.  The leader needs to help them set up the goals, make clear who makes the final decision  (even the best basketball, football, baseball and almost any other team has the coach and the team’s captain to make the final decision), and as important, to recognize that they are a high performance team and not there to be your sounding board. They are capable individuals, that will challenge the status quo if they consider that it will result in a better outcome for the team. And as a leader, that does not diminishes your authority, but should increase it with the members of your team.

High performance teams, globalization, entrepreneurship, and exports

It depends” because as an entrepreneur you must also remember that teams can also be virtual, and do not need to actually reside and be physically present in the same location. Consider your actual business needs and remember that from the web site designer that creates and maintains your web site, to the internet and cell phone provider, the company to whom you outsource your product manufacturing, and the accountant that helps you file in your taxes at the end of the year, all of them must be members of your high performance team. If you don’t think they are, or if they are not performing at the level you need them to, it’s time to reconsider their membership in your team, and seek alternates. In the end, it is the same that happens everyday in a high performance sports team, they move players around depending on their needs for that season. It does not means the coach or general manager are bad and want to get rid of players, it does not means (in the majority of the cases) that the player is bad, it only means that the specific player skills and abilities at the moment do not meet the needs of the team at the moment. Now you must also remember to be fair to those departing team members, since you may need them again in the future. It may sound great as many companies do to shortchange employees on the way out, but they need to remember that they may need that employee later in the future, and/or that the employee feedback may make or hurt their recruiting process later. Let’s be sure that as an entrepreneur and high performance team leader, you treat everybody as you will like to be treated.

With globalization, your high performance team can be virtual. Your web designer could be in India, your internet and cell phone providers in your own country, the manufacturer in China, and your customers any place in the world. Globalization and the current improvements in international trade, communications, free trade agreements, and the internet can help you or your company expand your opportunities into the international arena. You also can be part of someone else’s high performance virtual team and reap the benefits of globalization by just asking yourself: Do I have any products or services that I could export?

Additional articles bout team players, groupthink, and high performance teams can be found below:

How to be a good team team player

What is a team player?



The Rise of the New Groupthink

Leadership and Teamwork

Can a great team player be a great leader?

Foundations of Teamwork and Leadership

Building Leadership Teamwork

Building High Performance Teams

10 Rules for High Performance Teams

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