Avoiding the Perils of Groupthink

By on July 12, 2016
Avoiding the Perils of Groupthink

Hi, I’d like to talk with you about work teams and how to keep them productive.

Most businesses nowadays operate with the use of teams. Teams are useful because they can accomplish things that individuals can’t.

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 Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the Challenger explosion in 1986, the introduction of the Edsel in 1958 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 is a term invented by Research Psychologist Irving Janis back in 1972, and has been, ever since, a staple concept of communication theory.

Janis defined groupthink as “a way of thinking that emerges in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ desires for unanimity override their professional judgment.”

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.

Being ostracized or ejected from the group is the worst penalty when groups are highly cohesive. In business environments, that could mean not being called upon for high-profile projects or perhaps even being fired.

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

  • The group insulates itself from others – if the only people you talk to are in the group, the flow of information is severely limited and likely biased.
  • The group lacks strict procedural norms – procedural rules can take too much time, and when the group is under pressure to make a decision, members may dispense with formality and rush to judgment.
  • Membership of the group is too homogeneous – this often stems from the selection of team members based on “who we know” or recommendations by the leader. 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.”

Other symptoms include:

  • Stereotyping of outsiders – “They don’t understand us; anyway they’re not as smart as we are.”
  • A common symptom is self-censorship – “I’d better keep my mouth shut or:
    I’ll lose my job
    They won’t like me anymore
    They’ll think I’m stupid.”

Sometimes, a group or the team leader himself 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?”

Finally, a team may engage in mind-guarding, a refusal to admit any information that doesn’t fit with their preconceived notions.

  • “Don’t listen to those guys,
  • they don’t like us.
  • What do they know?
  • They never proved their theory.”

All of these signs and symptoms lead inevitably to what Janis called “The Illusion of Unanimity.” When this happens, everyone either says “yes” despite their doubts, or they remain silent, which the rest of the group interprets as agreement.

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.

  • An outside facilitator can ask the hard questions that no one else wants to bring up.
  • He or she can make sure the group stays on topic and doesn’t go off on unproductive tangents.
  • An objective facilitator can encourage participation by “wallflowers” and can prevent more aggressive team members from taking over a conversation.
  • Finally, employing an independent facilitator allows the team leader to participate more fully in the deliberations of the team.

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.

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

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