Leadership for Life – The Perils of Groupthink

By on October 1, 2012
The Perils of Groupthink

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Back in the spring of 2012, I posted an article on groupthink that generated some buzz. The following is an expanded version of that piece that may fill in some gaps.

When people come together in teams, they have an opportunity to share the experience and skills that each person brings to the team, which usually leads to better decision making and more focused problem solving.

But teams don’t always come up with superior solutions. In fact, teams sometimes come up with disastrous decisions. Historically, there have been many disasters that still make us wonder, “What were they thinking?” Think about the Challenger explosion in 1986, the introduction of the Edsel in the mid-fifties and New Coke in 1985. You can probably think of others, too. What they all have in common is that a disastrous decision was made by a team of professionals, people with expertise in their respective fields. Yet all that expertise could not prevent total and utter failure.

These failures were the result of a phenomenon known as Groupthink.

Groupthink happens in highly cohesive groups, in which the members feel a strong need to please a charismatic or highly directive leader or maintain a high level of friendliness. In fact, the more team members like each other, the more committed to the group they feel, the more likely it is that groupthink will occur. Teams with strong, directive, charismatic leaders also are at high risk for groupthink. Team members don’t want to disappoint or irritate their leader, so they choose to withhold information or criticism of ideas if they think the leader would disapprove.

There are several structural conditions that could lead to groupthink. As these conditions multiply, groupthink becomes more likely.

  • The group insulates itself from outsiders.
  • The group lacks strict procedural norms.
  • Membership of the group is too homogeneous. The lack of diversity leads to narrow thinking.
  • A combination of high outside pressure and an idea presented by the leader – It may sound like, “We need this in a hurry. If no one has any better ideas, let’s go with what we have.” “Any decision is better than no decision.”

Can groupthink be diagnosed before it damages a team or organization? There are several signs and symptoms that can be easily identified, especially by someone outside the team, who can be more objective:

  • The illusion of invulnerability – The belief that “We can’t do anything wrong.”
  • The inherent morality of the group – The belief that “We’re all fine, decent people.” “The group’s decision is always better than any individual’s.”
  • Rationalization using faulty logic – The belief that “We’ve always done it this way and nothing has ever gone wrong.”

Sometimes, a group or the team leader him/herself will exercise direct and unrelenting pressure – “You’re the only one who disagrees.” “If not for you, we’d all be able to go home.” “You really think you know better than the rest of us?”

So how does a team avoid the pitfalls associated with groupthink? Any combination of the following methods will steer a team away from the dangers of groupthink:

  • First, maintain a climate of openness and free communication – from the beginning, establish group norms that welcome outside information and encourage disagreement by members.
  • Teams can avoid insulating themselves by maintaining regular contact and interaction with other teams in the organization and, perhaps, with the competition.
  • Team members should be encouraged to participate in professional organizations and attend conferences.
  • The team needs to have people who are critical evaluators – Either appoint a “Devil’s advocate” for every meeting, or ensure that everyone on the team is responsible for conscientious critique.
  • To avoid the problems that come with directive or charismatic leadership, team leadership can be rotated, either by the meeting or by the project. Not only does this avoid the possibility of someone ram-rodding an idea through, but it also provides everyone with the opportunity to learn and practice leadership skills.

Another method of avoiding leadership problems is to bring in an outside facilitator who can play the role of “devil’s advocate” or objective questioner.

Does a team that has all or most of the groupthink symptoms always come up with a bad decision? Not always. Sometimes they get lucky. As a matter of fact, sometimes groupthink proves useful when the decisions are minor or routine. But when a team is facing a serious situation or needs to make a major decision that will affect the standing of the organization, groupthink nearly always produces an inferior outcome. That’s the time for the “devil’s advocate” to start waving his pitchfork around.

If you’d like more detail on this topic, click over to my podcast at http://www.stlcc.edu/podcasts/business-training/avoiding-groupthink.html.

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter