Staff work mostly in teams, which means groups. Being able to express your opinions honestly in a group is really important to how we work, for three reasons: it helps develop richer solutions to issue and problems; it allows diverse views to be expressed openly; and it manages the risks of problems not being dealt with early enough. We are all influenced by the pressures of being in a group. It's hard if yours is the lone voice in an opposing crowd.
I learnt about groups and exclusion early on in life. I was bright at maths and one day at secondary school I was asked by a classmate how I had found the previous night's homework. I said: "Easy, I did it in 10 minutes."
Apparently, everyone else had taken hours because they hadn't spotted a shortcut that I had. I was then ostracised because of the common outrage of the others, who were annoyed they hadn't seen the same shortcut. But no one said that to me - I was just cold-shouldered. My currency as brainbox increased, but not my social inclusion. And as a fat teenager, guess which one I cared about most?
It takes a lot of bravery to stand out from the crowd. We need staff to have the self-esteem, good judgement and courage to communicate well with us, and never more so than when things are going wrong. Groupthink is a powerful phenomenon that happens when the desire for group consensus overrides a team member's desire to express an unpopular opinion, critique a proposal or simply present alternatives. 'Telling tales' and 'shopping' people to managers are also forbidden activities in groups where conformity and loyalty have come to matter more than standards of service delivery.
This is why whistleblowers often get a hard time from the organisations where they work. They expose uncomfortable truths that the organisations would prefer to be kept covert. Some tactics used by unscrupulous senior managers against whistle-blowers include denying the issues, refusing to investigate properly or discrediting the individual as either bad or mad. As a result, whistle- blowers can feel isolated and end up questioning themselves.
Dissenters are valuable and we need them to feel able to tell us their experiences or thoughts. This way, we not only have safer organisations, but also innovative and creative ones. We should counteract groupthink and group pressure by making sure that individuals have the opportunity to say what they think. Beware of strong leaders who don't allow opinions or dissent or see it as disloyal.
HR is often the first port of call for staff expressing worries and concerns, and we need to be honourable and accountable in helping staff who express dissent. Don't join in by labelling those members of staff who raise difficult issues as trouble-makers.
Ensure any staff awaydays or staff meetings have mechanisms to raise all issues and concerns, not pretend they don't exist.
Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant