While culture plays an important role in the success of any organization it also creates the conditions that could compromise sustainability. Specifically, when people start to think in ways that are too similar (group-think) or start to believe in a certain narrative about the organization, dissenting voices are stifled and new ideas are ignored.

Whether it’s a family, a town, a country or a company, group-think is a real threat that requires vigilance and proactive action if the community in question wishes to avoid complacency.

It is ironic that the very things that culture thrives on– adherence to norms, shared lingo, experiences, beliefs, values, and so on– are also the things that could make it difficult to speak up when those values and beliefs aren’t in step with the market or with society, generally. Practices that may be deprecated elsewhere remain in place because the culture is stable and resistant to change.

Whenever dissenting voices sound, they are ignored or drowned out, sometimes due more to the inconvenience they cause rather than due to malice. Complacency is comfortable. It is easier to blame outside influences and agents (as isolated states often do) than to accept that the problem is inside, not outside the organization.

Group-think means that members of the organization tend to reinforce each other’s beliefs rather than contradict or challenge them. A narrative develops about the kind of people, the type of organization they are– about how they are different– and often “better”– than other people and organizations. There are inside jokes about the others, be they customers, competitors, regulators.

Some of this may well be necessary for social cohesion, for creating the group identity necessary to continue striving towards a common goal; to make sacrifices in the service of a greater, shared good or objective. One could argue that no organization can be successful without the conditions generated by a group-think environment. Indeed, there are parallels in human evolution where the tendency is to be more altruistic towards one’s own kind– however defined.

The question then becomes one of how to avail the benefits of group environments while mitigating the risks. As with many pervasive issues that are related to human behaviour– both individual and collective– there is no silver bullet.

Nevertheless, organizations can be proactive in responding to this potential threat– a threat to their very existence.

They can do so by encouraging dissenting voices when and where they are heard. They can do so by creating an environment where dissent– like failure– is not punished, but given a forum. This is not to say that all dissent is useful or valid, only that it will be impossible to decide if there is no opportunity for expression.

Organizations can go further, by actively recruiting contrarians that can add a constructive voice to internal debates. Hiring practices and policies can be adapted to identify independent thinkers, people who ask questions and think critically rather than always towing the corporate line.

Avoid a descent into insanity and obsolescence by dissenting towards sanity!