How to avoid groupthink
Groupthink can lead to disastrous decisions and stifle creativity. How do you recognize groupthink in the workplace and what can you do to overcome it? We take a look.
Your team makes a tight unit. Everyone is connected - whether they’re working on-site or working remotely. You're acing team collaboration and you're making quick decisions. But rewind a moment. Are you sure your team is really doing its job or could you be suffering from a case of groupthink?
What is groupthink - and why is it a problem?
Groupthink sounds like something out of George Orwell’s novel 1984, but the phrase was coined by psychologist Irving L. Janis back in the 70s. He defined it as ‘a psychological drive for consensus at any cost’ and saw it as a factor in a range of political debacles of the period, from the Bay of Pigs to the escalation of the Vietnam war.
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According to Janis, whose theories have been built on and elaborated by other psychologists, groupthink happens when people seek agreement at all costs and put consequences to one side, out of fear of damaging team consensus. This can lead to bad if not catastrophic decisions - suggestions of groupthink surround everything from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
But there are many smaller-scale examples of groupthink closer to home in the workplace too. Think of the terrible advertising campaign that inexplicably gets signed off and appears everywhere or the completely unsuitable candidate who somehow gets hired. People wonder how decisions like these ever got made. But if people make these decisions in groups without effective challenge, warning signals can go ignored, and organizations can fail to give potential consequences enough consideration.
Not every group suffers from groupthink, of course, so when does it happen? According to Janis, it can develop when group cohesiveness is high and when a group has a ‘warm, clubby atmosphere.’ As he described it: “The more amiability and esprit de corps among members of a policy-making group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink.”
This is one reason why the idea of groupthink presents such a challenge to anyone involved in teamwork and team collaboration. Surely teams should be cohesive? Isn’t the idea to reach a consensus? And what could be wrong with a warm dynamic with strong relationships between group members? It’s difficult to accept that the team harmony you’ve worked so hard to create could have a detrimental effect on successful collaboration. But avoiding groupthink is a matter of establishing just how much solidarity there should be in a team.
The problem with groupthink isn’t about team cohesiveness. It happens when a group puts maintaining cohesiveness and reaching consensus above everything else, including having honest, open business communication and collaboration that fosters creativity and leads to good decision-making. The first step in avoiding groupthink relies on recognizing that it’s happening in the first place. So how would you know if it was a problem with your team? There are a few groupthink characteristics to look for.
How do you recognize groupthink in the workplace?
Think about your last team meeting. Did people ask questions? Were they critical of any of the ideas team members came up with? Did you all agree quickly? Did you learn anything new, or did you mainly talk about what everyone already knows? The answers to these questions might start to give you an idea of whether your team is at risk of groupthink.
For true collaboration to happen, you need to ask questions, challenge ideas, and overcome differences, even if it’s uncomfortable for team members. All this can take time, so you might not be able to reach a quick decision. You might even need to reach out to experts from outside the team to help you or do some more research so you can be sure you’re basing decisions on the right information. But where there’s groupthink, these things don’t happen.
For a start, you won’t know what the team really thinks. One of the characteristics of groupthink is that team members will censor what they say or say nothing - they’ll do this themselves rather than wait for criticism. This can be because of what behavioral experts call ‘reputational pressures’ - they don’t want to be disapproved of by their peers or punished in some way by people who have authority over them.
And if anyone does put forward dissenting views or evidence, group members will put pressure on them to change their minds and fall into line.
This can result in what Janis called ‘the illusion of unanimity.’ In other words, it’ll seem like everyone agrees when they don’t. People don’t want to upset the team apple cart or any of the other team members.
This fake unanimity might be reinforced by ‘mindguards’ - team members who see it as their role to protect the team leader from any information or opinions that might cause problems or challenge the consensus.
And these aren’t the only problems. Groupthink makes teams think they’re exceptional, that they’re morally right and can take significant risks. This so-called ‘illusion of invulnerability' encourages people to reject outside opinions and negatively stereotypes people and ideas from outside the group that might damage the consensus. And they have ways of rationalizing their views so they can ignore anything that might force them to reconsider their opinions or assumptions or take an alternative course of action.
In short, once groupthink takes hold, what seems like a harmonious group is, in reality, little more than a vehicle for nodding through ill-considered decisions.
What causes groupthink?
Not every close-knit team falls victim to groupthink. There are certain circumstances in which it can thrive.
Groupthink can happen when people are under pressure or need to make quick decisions, so the need to reach consensus, right or wrong, overcomes everything else. Or a group might be under some sort of threat which makes people accept decisions with which they wouldn’t usually agree. In these situations, groups will want to reduce decisional stress - and to do this, they’ll try to agree quickly with as little argument as possible.
Individual leadership styles can be more likely to give rise to groupthink. Janis talked about what he called directive leaders - those who are wedded to their views to the exclusion of others. Indeed, a closed leadership style, where the leader states their opinion early on and makes it clear they don’t want to consider alternative views or courses of action, is conducive to groupthink.
Groupthink can develop when, for whatever reason, teams are cut off from information coming from outside that might influence or change their decisions.
A group that’s like a club, where people know each other very well, or where everyone comes from the same type of background and has similar ideas, can give rise to groupthink. Teams that lack diversity can make assumptions about many things and lack alternative perspectives to challenge biases. Overlapping roles might make people unsure of their contribution to the team, other than mere agreement.
Cohesiveness in a team is desirable, but it’s a matter of degree. When members of a group become too friendly, it can be difficult for people to raise dissenting views for fear of offending each other and damaging the group's harmony.
How do you overcome groupthink?
One of the best ways to challenge groupthink is to stop it before it starts - so organizations should consider it when putting teams together. Just as homogeneity can be one contributor to groupthink, team diversity can mitigate against it. People from different backgrounds offer different perspectives, so they may be less likely to slip into comfortable consensus. Look for a mix of personalities that can bounce off each other too.
Roles and responsibilities
Assigning clear roles to each member is also important. Everyone should be aware that members have specific role-related expertise to contribute, so groups know they’re not there to cover the familiar ground where everyone feels comfortable.
Also, think about the size of the group. Psychologists have correlated larger groups with groupthink, so while there may not be an ideal size, don’t add members unnecessarily.
Leadership is the key to creating a genuinely collaborative group. Groupthink is less likely to happen where open leadership solicits, welcomes, and values different views. For leaders, that means walking the walk by not squashing down the person who tells you what you don’t want to hear.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Cass R. Sustain and Reid Hastie talk about ‘cascade effects’ - where members of the group fall into line with the statements of the person who spoke first. So one trick for leaders who want to discourage groupthink is to avoid speaking first in meetings. That way, people won’t feel under pressure to agree with the leader’s opinions. And leaders can even not attend some group meetings altogether, leaving the group feeling freer about having an open discussion.
Teams often view conflict as a negative, but as long as it doesn’t get out of control, it can be useful in allowing creative disagreement to come to the surface. To avoid groupthink, resist the temptation to extinguish conflict as soon as it arises. Instead, look to calm the situation down and then hear the protagonists out.
Sometimes team members can be shy of saying what they feel. This is when you might have to encourage debate so the group can start looking at a problem from different angles. To do this, you could encourage someone to play the devil’s advocate, interrogate arguments, and bring new perspectives and ideas to the surface.
Janis also had the idea of breaking teams into sub-groups that can work on the same issue simultaneously, thereby providing different perspectives. As a further check on groupthink, once you reach an initial decision, hold a ‘second chance’ meeting where people can raise any doubts or questions before making a final decision.
Finally, the group needs to realize that it doesn’t all begin and end with them. They may not always be able to provide all the necessary information to make the right decision. Look for outside perspectives, bringing people from different teams and other experts into the group to present their views and inform deliberations. Keep your groups open to outside influences and new ideas, and you’ll have a team of individuals that genuinely collaborate, rather than think as one.
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