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Spotlight on Walden // Sep 10, 2018

Meet a Graduate: Dr. John Reaves

Dr. John Reeves
Dr. John Reaves

Are you afraid of going to work?

Dr. John Reaves, a PhD in Management graduate, asked this simple yet unnerving question to a random sample of his more than 800 LinkedIn connections. Eighty percent of respondents to his informal query said yes.

“That’s pretty high for professionals from a cross-section of industries, many of whom said it’s because their manager is riding them to the point where they can’t be productive,” says Dr. Reaves. “But, it’s likely on par for project managers, whose resolve is challenged each and every day as a result of groupthink.”

Groupthink is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility. According to Dr. Reaves, groupthink is rampant in the project management industry. Throughout his career as a project manager, he’d work with project sponsors who would say the project needed to be done in a certain way to meet deadlines, regardless of other recommendations the team may have identified.

“A project sponsor is often a CEO or other member of leadership, so it can be easy to acquiesce instead of doing the right thing,” says Dr. Reaves. “I learned very early that even though you may get fired or yelled at every now and then, you have to raise your hand and say, ‘You’re paying me to be a collaborative partner and not an order-taker.’”

Through the research for his dissertation, A Study of Groupthink in Project Teams, he learned it’s not as easy for younger and less-experienced project managers to speak up. Earlier in their careers, project managers believe the consequences are often too high to challenge the mandate because they have a family and need to bring home a paycheck.

Although speaking up can have consequences, Dr. Reaves says he needed to do it in order to sleep at night. His research revealed that groupthink can lead project teams to advance flawed decisions that may cost people their jobs or result in loss of life. Extreme examples include destructive space shuttles, unnecessary war, and financial disasters that ultimately trickle down to negatively impact millions of lives.

“It can be uncomfortable to do the right thing at the time, and I definitely tend to get a lot of pushback,” admits Dr. Reaves. “But, at the end of the day, I earn a level of respect from my colleagues, who realize that while I don’t agree with them, it’s not the easiest thing to stand up and say something. In fact, they thank me for being their conscience throughout the process.”

As a manager, he respects his team members who offer differing perspectives on projects. Unlike in groupthink, they actually do the critical analysis before presenting the idea. Sometimes Dr. Reaves takes their suggestions and other times he passes, but he always respects and appreciates the collaborative process.

That same process was mirrored in his Walden classes and is what he loved most about his doctoral program.

“I had so much fun going back and forth with colleagues in discussion posts,” recalls Dr. Reaves. “You have people from all over the world with different dialects and perspectives evaluating, supporting, and/or defending ideas. You can’t get this anywhere else but in an online classroom environment. It has been such an amazing experience, and I wish I could go back 10 years and tell my kids to take online classes.”

Dr. Reaves’ doctoral journey was a personal endeavor that coincided with him and two of his children graduating from college this year. He says his undergraduate degree was for his parent, his master’s degree was to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace, but his PhD was for him.

“It was exciting to be right in the height of my professional career working toward this goal, and now I look forward to the next 10 to 20 years of having fun and doing it on my terms,” says Dr. Reaves, who plans to do a lot of writing to share his experiences and wisdom with those starting their professional journey.

Although his research focused on project management, he believes its core message is applicable to other professions.

“Think about the times you knew the right thing to do but went along with the majority because you were scared of the consequences,” says Dr. Reaves. “Now is the time to stop being afraid and do the right thing.”

—Jen Raider