You Think, Not GroupThink

Posted by Sally Hogshead on June 16, 2011
You Think, Not GroupThink

Focus groups have many fine attributes-qualitative research, consumer insight, free sub sandwiches. Their flaw? Too often, focus groups kill great thinking-or, worse, dumb it down to jelly. I've watched this happen countless times in my advertising career. People gravitate to familiar ideas rather than new ones. What was once a brilliant concept gets castrated. That's why most advertising sucks.

Sorry about the rant. Where were we? Oh, right. Your career.

Too often, we allow our careers to become a lifelong focus group. Business itself is a series of subtle positive and negative reinforcement signals, and anyone smart enough to pick up on those signals can't help but be shaped by their influence. Most offices aren't exactly warm 'n' fuzzy places to work, and judgments come fast and furious. We marinate in opinions from managers, coworkers, consumers, clients, employees, agencies, stockholders, media. Some days, it feels like everyone gets to vote on our performance.

Sometimes we forget: There's a difference between what's right and what's easy to agree upon. I see this phenomenon at the individual and corporate level, from Fortune 500 monoliths to entrepreneurial hot shops. We're all susceptible to the lure of approval. Of course, this shaping process can work to our benefit, especially in the early days of our career when we need to learn what works and what doesn't. (Case in point: Don't mix tequila, karaoke, and a night out with the boss.)

But just as often, we walk right into the buzzsaw of the committee mentality. We dumb ourselves down. Quirks become a liability. Square pegs become rounded.

Take office fashion, for example. Even in creative environments, people start to wear a "uniform" such as rectangular wire-framed spectacles or faded suede sneakers. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, just as long as you make choices based on what's right for you, and not what's "right."

Like the finches of the Galapagos, we make adaptations to fit in. We might water down ideas in order to get everyone's approval. In our careers, we lower our goals and compromise our standards for what's supposedly "realistic." Eventually, if we're not careful, our own jobs-in fact, our own identities-can become the equivalent of the idea in front of the focus group. Mark Twain offers a good rule of thumb: "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." Yes.

If you blindly choose-or worse, feel pressured to choose-a path that may not be in your best interest, you're giving in to the focus group mentality. Any of the following sound familiar?

.   You spend much more time at your job engaged in office politics than generating results.
.   You feel compelled to say "yes" to requests when you actually mean "maybe" or even "no way in hell."
.   You're judged by participation in pointless projects or committees that give you face time but don't improve the quality of your work.
.   You have an exciting plan for a business venture, and you sense that the negative feedback is not because the idea is flawed but because it is new.
.   You feel unable to express your personality and your strengths.

Of course, you absolutely should get opinions from those you respect, both within your company and industry, and outside of it. We all need reality checks. But as you listen to the input of others, remember that you hold final veto power.  

Don't play on anyone else's terms. You can't win on their terms-only your own. Above all, know when to shut off the lights of the research facility and tell the participants to go home. Certain decisions are best left to a focus group of one. You.

MBA Jungle, Feb./March 2007

Sally Hogshead, author of Radical Careering: 100 Truths to Jumpstart Your Life, speaks to groups around the country on leadership and innovation.

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