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  • Writer's pictureKathy Miles

The Trouble with Groupthink

The Trouble with Groupthink

How many times have you been in a meeting at work and thought about speaking up, because you disagree with the flow of conversation and the ideas presented, but you didn’t? Instead you stayed silent so you don’t come off as being disagreeable or unsupportive of the group’s efforts.

I’m sure there have also been times where you have wondered why something is done the way it is (which can often be a longer, more arduous process than it needs to be), but you don’t speak up and suggest another way as you know this is the way it has always been done and who are you to question that.

Throughout your career, or even within your personal life, there would have been times when you were reluctant to step up and express your own opinions, thoughts or beliefs to the group. Chances are that you are experiencing Groupthink in these very moments.

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a term that was coined by Irving Janis, a research psychologist and retired professor, in 1972.

Janis came up with the term after researching group dynamics, and why a team which has made good decisions previously, can have poor judgement the next time.

Janis found that a lack of conflict, or differing viewpoints within a group will lead to poor decisions being made. His reasoning for this was that a harmonious group, with no differing opinions or ideas being presented, can’t gather enough information to make the most informed, practical and best decisions.

The phenomenon of Groupthink is something that has plagued organisations for a long time. It comes about when a group of people are thinking collectively and are driven by maintaining harmony and group consensus. When group consensus overrides the common sense of individuals within the group, it prevents them from presenting alternatives to the group's ideas, or even presenting constructive criticism of the position, or opinion that seems to dominate the group.

The Impact of Groupthink:

Proper problem solving and solid decision-making skills should be at a premium in the workplace decision-making process, but sometimes the need for group cohesion effectively derails these skills, and results in a poorly thought out decision.

One of the largest and most disastrous occurrences of Groupthink from recent history is the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy. In this example, various engineers knew the shuttle had faulty parts for months, some even raised their concerns at the last minute but were persuaded to confirm that the mission was good to go by the rest of the team. A fear of negative press, an over-bearing desire to launch, and group consensus saw the shuttle launch on 28th January 1986. Just 73 seconds after being launched, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven people on board.

Poor decisions can and often do lead to significant damage for the organisation.

What Does Groupthink Look Like?

Janis suggests that Groupthink is most likely to happen when three things are present:

  1. A strong, persuasive leader;

  2. A high-level of group cohesion; and

  3. Intense outside pressure to come up with a good decision.

Groupthink can be found in a lot of different situations, organisations, and workplaces, so it is important to understand the indicators of Groupthink.

Indicators of Groupthink

A few of the major indicators of Groupthink are:

  • Censorship: Often members of the group will not express their true feelings or thoughts in fear of being ostracised.

  • Peer Pressure: Anyone who voices concerns or opposition to the group’s opinions is pressured to keep quiet, change their mind and conform to the group’s will.

  • Rationalising: When presented with evidence that goes against a decision, the group rationalises why the decision they made is still the best one, despite the evidence.

  • Complacency: Once a group starts to think that the first decision they come to is the best one, they ignore all other options and views.

  • False Unanimity: Thinking that because no one speaks up, everyone agrees with the decision. Silence does not mean unanimous, and the assumption of the contrary leads to Groupthink.

If you recognise any of these signs from your team meetings and decision-making processes, you may want to re-evaluate how you go about making decisions.

How to Avoid Groupthink

It is vital for any leader to ensure they create an atmosphere that is conducive for proper decision making, all while making sure that Groupthink remains unlikely to happen. This can be a more difficult task than some may think, but there are plenty of ways to ensure that you and your team are avoiding Groupthink and are making proper, well-thought out decisions.

Here are some of the best ways to make sure your teams' decision-making process is sound:

  • Explore Information and Come Up with Alternatives: As a team, make sure that you are exploring all aspects of a problem and coming up with as many alternatives as you can. Brainstorming and mind mapping are great team activities for ensuring that all ideas and alternatives are raised.

  • Remain Objective: Make sure that your team processes all of the information gathered objectively. Open discussions, questions, analysis of information and alternatives should always be encouraged.

  • Challenge Ideas: Team members should be encouraged on a regular basis to challenge the group’s ideas without any backlash or reprisal. This behaviour should become so innate that it happens automatically in meetings without needing to be prompted.

  • Assess Risks: Talk through and assess all the potential risks of each alternative.

  • Re-Examine the Alternatives: Before settling on your preferred decision, go back and re-examine all of the alternatives you had come up with in the beginning. If you can all still say that the chosen alternative is the best, then you can proceed.

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