Avoiding groupthink

Groupthink’s a term devised by psychologist Irving Janis. He defined groupthink as:

“a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Why does groupthink matter?

Because it can make things go very, very wrong.

In his book, Groupthink, Christopher Booker explains how groupthink has permeated many aspects of society, from governments and media to the general public. It’s one reason why we see groups of people so divided, clutching on to their interpretation of the world, unwilling or unable to see things from an outsider’s perspective.

When groupthink starts to take hold, we can see things like:

The group constantly reinforces its collective view. People might begin to disregard unwanted information that challenges its views. You can see this process happen in fandoms on social media. People form cliques and gradually reject people who disagree with them – echo chambers is one result of this.

Peer pressure leading to a lack of creative risk-taking. Because most people almost need to be accepted by the group, there’s already a reluctance to speak up with concerns, especially for less confident people or people who already feel like outsiders. If we don’t feel strongly about something, the pressure to adapt our view to fit in with the group often wins. If they do raise points of contradiction, scorn, or more subtle negativity from other group members, can make them hurriedly reconsider and decide that they were wrong.

No one’s responsible, so no one’s to blame. When that idea gets made into something tangible and things go wrong, it’s hard to find any accountability. If there’s no one to learn the lesson, how will the organisation stop this from happening again?

What leads to groupthink?

  1. Being on the same wavelength. If there’s a lack of diversity in the group and everyone shares similar backgrounds and experiences, they may find it easier to brainstorm ideas that everyone in the room likes. If anyone disagrees with the idea or sees some challenges, they might be more reluctant to be seen as “the difficult one”. They can also lack understanding of the perspective of people outside the group.
  2. Group leadership is overwhelming. We’ve seen this in crisis training exercises. Sometimes one person will take charge of the group and create a groupthink atmosphere where no one challenges what the leader says. Inevitably, we’ve found that this group performs poorly as they tend to block out external feedback that goes against the leader’s vision.
  3. Stress, a lack of motivation or burnout. Stressed people, or those suffering from burnout, could be more likely to go along with the consensus. Or, perhaps, they’re used to leaders ignoring their ideas or getting no recognition for having them (in which case, why take the risk of speaking up for no reward?). It could also be that we seek the security of consensus when we’re stressed.
  4. People in the group have low self-esteem or don’t trust the group, making them less likely to risk speaking up against the prevailing view. There’s an element of risk-taking and vulnerability involved in sharing your idea or opinion with a group of people (especially if you know it will get pushback). If you’ve experienced being judged or mocked for your contributions, you might be less likely to suggest anything.

But how can we stop groupthink from taking hold? It’s very human to want to surround ourselves with people who think like us. It’s reassuring and makes us feel secure in the group. But groupthink also discourages creative and critical thinking. It leads us to the wrong conclusions.

Preventing groupthink

Separate facts from opinions and get outside views. By taking the speculation out of things and focusing on what facts the team has at hand, the group can look at a situation clearly before expressing their opinions. It’s a good idea to get the input of people outside the group as well.

Generate ideas independently. One way we tackle groupthink at Carrot is that we think about a topic ourselves before going into a brainstorming session. So, each of us comes to the meeting with a set of ideas to discuss that we get from researching various sources.

Encourage criticism and don’t dismiss it out of hand. If the idea is your baby and you’re very excited about launching it, your enthusiasm may make people hesitate to bring up concerns. It’s important to create a space for critical discussion. Make it part of the process; that way, no one is responsible for being the first (and, they may fear, only) one to speak out. Whatever you do, don’t punish the person who brings up issues. Doing this will discourage the person willing to take the risk and discourage those looking on who are still wondering if they should speak up.

Foster a culture of trust and creative conflict. People need to trust each other and their managers if they’re going to take a risk and be honest about their opinions. Carrot’s culture has always been very open to discussions and dissenting views. We challenge each other on our ideas and often discuss them with people outside of the business to get their perspectives.

Take the boss out of the picture. In larger companies, if the group includes a manager or high-level executive, have them observe the discussion but not influence it with their opinion. If you have your boss there being passionate about a particular idea, it’d take a confident and independent person to challenge them in the meeting. It’s much better to keep the boss (or at least their opinion) out of the equation.

Groupthink is pretty pervasive in society. It can stop us from seeing the obvious. Stop us from finding creative solutions and innovating to overcome problems. But by acknowledging the risk of groupthink, organisations can spot the warning signs and prevent groups from making poor decisions.

Featured image by Austin Blanchard on Unsplash


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