Of Google, Groupthink and the Culture of Decision-Making

By Glenn Krahulic and Peter Walters

What can the recent controversies at Google, Facebook and Uber teach us about cultural limits to decision-making in our company and community?

A Similarity of Differences
On the face of it, from a cultural perspective, Google and Uber are very different companies.  Uber’s culture has evolved slowly and still reflects its roots as a “take no prisoners” startup company.

By comparison, Google spends significant resources on maintaining and evolving its culture.  They hire very carefully to bring on people who fit. They also have teams within human resources (which they call people operations) that focus on managing the culture and instilling it in all employees (Bock, 2015); moreover, Google just recently created the position of VP of diversity to manage their diversity and inclusion strategy.

Similarly, Facebook is just as dedicated to building a common culture, but they work hard to maintain a “hacker culture” that focuses on creative problem solving, openness, boldness, speed and continuous improvement.

Clash of the Cultures
In the last three years, each of these companies have faced a crisis that has pitted their culture against social culture. Uber has been charged with sexual harassment that has led to a fractured board of directors and the firing of its CEO. Facebook has faced charges of being a difficult workplace, rife with imperialism, lack of professionalism, censorship and influencing elections.  Google is now embroiled in a fight over diversity that has some employees claiming that they are being shamed into silence because they hold diverse opinions that differ from the politically correct official views of the company.

These challenges in companies with very different cultures and ways of working highlight several questions that relate to how we manage corporate culture relative to ethics, social culture and decision-making.  For example, in the face of internal criticism, Google has chosen to fire an employee rather than engage in creative dialog.  Whether this will end the internal discussion is still an open question, but it does suggest that a careful balance is needed to align corporate culture to achieve common goals while allowing creative discourse.  When tipped one way, it leaves a company open to valid complaints about a lack of ethical standards.  When tipped the other way, it leads to a stifling of opinions, creativity and innovation.

Cognitive Biases and Group Dynamics
The problem and solution is tied to cognitive biases and group dynamics and how we, as individuals, interact to make decisions.  Arguably, when faced with an issue or opportunity, a company does best if it can critically evaluate a full set of options and select an approach that best serves the company, its people and broader society.  However, if not properly managed, cognitive biases and group dynamics working under the guise of corporate culture can severely limit the options that are identified and further limit the evaluation that each option receives.

Let’s look at how that works.  Scientific research in psychology and behavioural economics have demonstrated that cognitive biases tend to force us to rapidly reach a decision and then rationalize it as being the best choice.  Information that is not supportive of our choice is ignored or actively suppressed.  The preferred choice is often selected due to its familiarity rather than because of its quality or desirability.  This is referred to as the “familiarity heuristic” and is the basis for much of the advertising that companies create to develop familiarity with a product or service.

The Double-Edge of Familiarity
In an organization, familiarity is often developed through corporate culture.  The culture places front-of-mind shared beliefs around areas such as safety, work/life balance, inclusiveness, collaboration and risk sensitivity.  When a decision needs to be made these beliefs lead to a rapid selection of a preferred option.  Our propensity for confirmation bias then leads us to defend that decision even if other better options exist.

Corporate culture is critical to allow individuals to work together as a team and make decisions quickly and efficiently.  It can become dysfunctional and result in poor decision-making if it becomes so strong that it leads to group polarization. Group polarization is the tendency of groups to make more extreme decisions than team members would make individually.  Corporate culture can provide support for groups to make extreme decisions when faced with a business challenge.

The Dangers of Groupthink
It can also lead to groupthink.  Groupthink was first described by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 (Janis, 1972).  He defined it as occurring when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement.

Janis went on to define the symptoms of groupthink as including:

  • An illusion of invulnerability;
  • Collective rationalism;
  • Belief that the rightness and righteousness of their cause allows ethical and moral consequences of their decision to be ignored;
  • Negative views of people holding other opinions.  They are viewed as “the enemy” rather than people who hold a different but valid view;
  • Direct pressure on dissenters in the group to only hold and voice the views of the group;
  • Self-censorship where doubts or deviations from the group consensus are not expressed;
    An illusion of unanimity where all members believe that everyone in the group holds the same views; and
  • Self-appointed mind guards that protect the group by attacking any views or anyone holding views perceived to be contrary to the views of the group.

Corporate Culture: A Fine Balance
In this light, the balance that an organization needs to maintain is one between a good corporate culture that allows all employees to work effectively, efficiently and ethically and a corporate culture that results in groupthink where thinking becomes fossilized, innovation is stifled and creativity is lost.

When looking at the challenges at Google it is possible, while not commenting on the actual issue, to ask whether their corporate culture has crossed over from being a powerful tool that enables the organization, becoming instead a repository of groupthink that is stifling opinions, innovation, and creativity.  This is a significant challenge for them going forward as they are deservedly proud of their corporate culture, work environment and its ability to develop innovative solutions.

Glenn Krahulicis a business moderator, trainer, and author. As the president of Tyra Information Strategies Inc., Glenn has spent over 30 years working with medium and large public and private organizations to build and deliver enterprise level IT solutions. As the lead architect of Tyra’s tools and processes, he is focused on integrating the findings of behavioral science into approaches to enable organizations to fine tune their culture, skills and decision making processes.

After nearly 35 years in the BC Public Service, many of them as an Assistant Deputy Minister in the tourism, natural resource and Aboriginal relations ministries, Peter Walters has focused on facilitation, training and writing. In addition to facilitating workshops and producing online content at Tyra Information Strategies, Peter leads seminars on briefing, leadership and governance.

Bock, L. (2015). Work Rules! Insights From Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. . Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-14002-1.

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