Happy Talk

wiser sunstainYesterday, as I was reviewing some academic works about collective intelligence, I came across this brilliant explanation of why many groups fail, and the very simple recipe to go beyond groupthink(1). Having seen all this happy talk many times—too many times—I couldn’t help it. I was anxious. I had to copy it here (emphasis mine):

Good managers are acutely aware of the benefits of information aggregation, and they know that role assignment can reduce the risk of “happy talk.” Happy talk occurs when group members say that all is going well and likely to go even better—that there is nothing to worry about. We think that happy talk is a pervasive source of group failures,

(…) We can divide the world of leaders into two kinds of people: the complacent and the anxious. Complacent leaders are relaxed, upbeat, and contented. They think that things are entirely under control. By contrast, anxious leaders are focused on possible disasters. They fear that things are about to go wrong and perhaps spiral out of control.

Complacent people tend to be immensely likable. They seem like perfect team players. They can tell a terrific story. Some of them are visionaries. They don’t rock any boats. They are buoyant and full of smiles. They have plenty of ideas, many of which are excellent. They tend to be happy, and they like happy talk. It’s tempting to hire and promote them. We won’t name any names, but every presidential administration, like many other workplaces, has plenty of complacent, easygoing people.

By contrast, the anxious people may be optimistic, nice, even enthusiastic and full of smiles, but they are also troubled by concern, skepticism, and doubt. They believe in their projects and want them to work, but anxious people see obstacles, downsides, and challenges everywhere. Working with the Obama administration’s complacent people, the anxious people would sometimes look doubtful, focused, negative, and occasionally severe. They would ask probing questions along the lines of, “What could go wrong? Did you think of this? Why haven’t you planned for that?”


anxiety concentrates the mind, and an anxious leader concentrates a lot of minds. Anxiety, like most emotions, is contagious—which is an important lesson for managers to keep in mind.


Good managers have to be anxious, even as they must inspire loyalty and affection in their colleagues and subordinates, (…)

Anxious people (…) are indispensable in business and government, because they cut through, and overcome, the risk of groupthink. They work a bit like devil’s advocates but they’re a lot better, because everyone knows that they mean business and aren’t playing any kind of game. They say what they think. Even better, they say what they fear. With their very different styles, they keep asking, “What can go wrong?”

The good news is that if discussion is properly structured and if groups adopt the right norms and practices, they can create that culture. The bad news is that in the real world, discussion often leads people in the wrong directions. Many groups fail to correct the mistakes of their members. On the contrary, groups often amplify those mistakes. If group members are unrealistically optimistic, groups may be more unrealistic still. If people within a firm are paying too little attention to the long term, the firm will probably suffer from a horrible case of myopia. There is no evidence that the judgment mistakes uncovered by behavioral scientists are corrected as a result of group discussion.

An anxious leader concentrates a lot of minds.

Cass, Reid, Thank you. Your words give me comfort.


(1) Sunstein, Cass R., and Reid Hastie. Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.

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