Avoiding Groupthink

Avoiding Fatal Flaws in Group Decision Making

© iStockphoto/gollykim

Have you ever thought about speaking up in a meeting and then decided against it because you did not want to appear unsupportive of the group's efforts?

Or led a team in which the team members were reluctant to express their own opinions?

If so, you have probably been a victim of "Groupthink".

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people's common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. Here, the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem solving.

Two well-known examples of Groupthink in action are the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Engineers of the space shuttle knew about some faulty parts months before takeoff, but they did not want negative press so they pushed ahead with the launch anyway.

With the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy made a decision and the people around him supported it despite their own concerns.

Irving L. Janis coined the term "Groupthink," and published his research in the 1972 book, "Groupthink." His findings came from research into why a team reaches an excellent decision one time, and a disastrous one the next. What he found was that a lack of conflict or opposing viewpoints led to poor decisions, because alternatives were not fully analyzed, and because groups did not gather enough information to make an informed decision.

How to Spot Groupthink

Janis suggested that Groupthink happens when there is:

  • A strong, persuasive group leader.
  • A high level of group cohesion.
  • Intense pressure from the outside to make a good decision.

In fact, it is now widely recognized that Groupthink-like behavior is found in many situations and across many types of groups and team settings. So it's important to look out for the key symptoms.

Symptoms of Groupthink

Rationalization:
This is when team members convince themselves that despite evidence to the contrary, the decision or alternative being presented is the best one.
"Those other people don't agree with us because they haven't researched the problem as extensively as we have."

Peer Pressure:
When a team member expresses an opposing opinion or questions the rationale behind a decision, the rest of the team members work together to pressure or penalize that person into compliance.
"Well if you really feel that we're making a mistake you can always leave the team."

Complacency:
After a few successes, the group begins to feel like any decision they make is the right one because there is no disagreement from any source.
"Our track record speaks for itself. We are unstoppable!"

Moral High Ground:
Each member of the group views him or herself as moral: The combination of moral minds is therefore thought not to be likely to make a poor or immoral decision. When morality is used as a basis for decision-making, the pressure to conform is even greater because no individual wants to be perceived as immoral.
"We all know what is right and wrong, and this is definitely right."

Stereotyping:
As the group becomes more uniform in their views, they begin to see outsiders as possessing a different and inferior set of morals and characteristics from themselves. These perceived negative characteristics are then used to discredit the opposition.
"Lawyers will find any excuse to argue, even when the facts are clearly against them."

Censorship:
Members censor their opinions in order to conform.
"If everyone else agrees then my thoughts to the contrary must be wrong."

Information that is gathered is censored so that it also conforms to, or supports the chosen decision or alternative.
"Don't listen to that nonsense, they don't have a clue about what is really going on."

Illusion of Unanimity:
Because no one speaks out, everyone in the group feels the group's decision is unanimous. This is what feeds the Groupthink and causes it to spiral out of control.
"I see we all agree so it's decided then."

How to Avoid Groupthink

The challenge for any team or group leader is to create a working environment in which Groupthink is unlikely to happen. It is important also to understand the risks of Groupthink – if the stakes are high, you need to make a real effort to ensure that you're making good decisions.

To avoid Groupthink, it is important to have a process in place for checking the fundamental assumptions behind important decisions, for validating the decision-making process, and for evaluating the risks involved. For significant decisions, make sure your team does the following in their decision-making process:

  • Explores objectives.
  • Explores alternatives.
  • Encourages ideas to be challenged without reprisal.
  • Examines the risks if the preferred choice is chosen.
  • Tests assumptions.
  • If necessary, goes back and re-examines initial alternatives that were rejected.
  • Gathers relevant information from outside sources.
  • Processes this information objectively.
  • Has at least one contingency plan  .

There are many group techniques that can help with this, including the "Mind Tools" listed below. By using one or more of these techniques to accomplish aspects of the group's work, you will vary the group's ways of working, and so guard against Groupthink and help make better decisions.

Tools That Help You Avoid Groupthink

Group Techniques:
Brainstorming   Helps ideas flow freely without criticism.
Six Thinking Hats   Helps the team look at a problem from many different perspectives, allowing people to play "Devil's Advocate".
The Delphi Technique   Allows team members to contribute individually, with no knowledge of a group view, and with little penalty for disagreement.
Decision Support Tools:
Risk Analysis   Helps team members explore and manage risk.
Impact Analysis   Ensures that the consequences of a decision are thoroughly explored.
The Ladder of
Inference
 
Helps people check and validate the individual steps of a decision-making process.

How to Overcome Groupthink

However, if Groupthink does set in, it's important that you recognize and acknowledge it quickly, so that you can overcome it and quickly get back to functioning effectively.

Follow these steps to do this:

  1. Even with good group decision-making processes in place, be on the look out for signs of Groupthink, so you can deal with them swiftly.
  2. If there are signs of Groupthink, discuss these in the group. Once acknowledged, the group as a whole can consciously free up its decision making.
  3. Assess the immediate risks of any decision, and the consequences for the group and its customers. If risks are high (for example risk of personal safety), make sure you take steps to fully validate any decision before it is ratified.
  4. If appropriate, seek external validation, get more information from outside, and test assumptions. Use the bullets above as a starting point in diagnosing things that needs to change.
  5. Introduce formal group techniques and decision-making tools, such as the ones listed above, to avoid Groupthink in the future.

Key Points

Groupthink can severely undermine the value of a group's work and, at its worst, it can cost people their lives.

On a lesser scale, it can stifle teamwork, and leave all but the most vocal team members disillusioned and dissatisfied. If you're on a team that makes a decision you don't really support but you feel you can't say or do anything about it, your enthusiasm will quickly fade.

Teams are capable of being much more effective than individuals but, when Groupthink sets in, the opposite can be true. By creating a healthy group-working environment, you can help ensure that the group makes good decisions, and manages any associated risks appropriately.

Group techniques such as Brainstorming   and Six Thinking Hats   can help with this, as can other decision making and thinking tools.

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Comments (9)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    I find that the best way to ensure everyone participates is to have an effective leader or facilitator present - that way no matter the size or the gender ratio or any other factor, people's ideas are heard. Impartiality and the notion of not judging any idea is so important to the process and that's why the leader of the group doing the brainstorming or discussing has to stay focused and not commit to one idea or one side at all. It's far to easy for the leader to sway the entire process - something as simple as, "fantastic idea" can enough to steer comments in that direction and dissuade people from expressing their dissenting viewpoints.

    Where possible, I like the idea of bringing in an objective third party to facilitate these types of meetings. And facilitator training for a few people in the organization is a great training investment.

    Dianna
  • GoldenBoy wrote Over a month ago
    Personally, I believe that Gender Roles are important in a group setting. My experience has shown female members to be much more vocal and willing to share their ideas than male members. This may be a Canadian thing, I'm not sure... so, perhaps cultural differences also play a role?
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Splitting the group into smalles groups is a good idea GB! I also tend to give my ideas more easily in a smaller group. In a bigger group I go completely quiet if there is an overbearing member or if the leader doesn't seem to be very tolerant of other people's ideas or ways of doing.

    Just a thought...do you thinkg the gender ratio (how many males and how many females) of the group plays a role?

    Regards
    Yolandé
  • GoldenBoy wrote Over a month ago
    [quote="MichaelP":gp9wdyio]Hi, terminology! I have always used 'groupthink' as a positive term to invite input from others!!! The issue you have described I have always known as the Abillene paradox!

    Intelligent people gathered together tend towards stupidity !

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_paradox

    I will try an recalibrate my use of the word 'Groupthink" and certainly keep avoiding this disastrous occurrence.

    good article.

    @ Michael,

    Just a comment on the article you linked to, and your thoughts on the Abilene paradox. About halfway down the article, the Wiki indicates that the phenomenon may be a form of groupthink. A definite indicator that groupthink may not be a positive experience

    TTFN
    GB
  • GoldenBoy wrote Over a month ago
    What about using smaller groups as splinters from the main group involved? If there is a concern that Groupthink might occur, split the 'thinktank' into smaller groups and discuss the idea(s) simultaneously in smaller groups, in separated locations if possible. This way, the likelihood that a powerful influence (strong leader, overbearing member) can control the group will be reduced. I also find that I am more likely to contribute an idea in a smaller group than a large one.

    Once the decisions have been made, present the consensus in a larger meeting to all the group members for discussion, where members can take ownership of their ideas without fear of reprisal.

    Great article.

    TTFN
    GB
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all

    Personally I think the "Round Robin" brainstorming technique published here recently, would be particularly useful as a tool to avoid groupthink.
    http://www.mindtools.com/community/page ... orming.php
    Seeing that ideas are written down, it gives people time to consider one another's ideas and it gives them a bit more time to think objectively. As much as we need to work together in teams, as dangerous it is if everybody in a team tries to think the same.

    Regards
    Yolandé
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Hi, terminology! I have always used 'groupthink' as a positive term to invite input from others!!! The issue you have described I have always known as the Abillene paradox!

    Intelligent people gathered together tend towards stupidity !

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_paradox

    I will try an recalibrate my use of the word 'Groupthink" and certainly keep avoiding this disastrous occurrence.

    good article.
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi All

    Is a group decision always the best decision? Not always - especially if the decision has been a victim of "Groupthink."

    Groupthink happens when the desire for group cohesion drives out good decision making and problem solving. Find out how to avoid it in this week's Featured Favorite.

    Click below to read the article!
    http://mindtools.com/community/pages/ar ... LDR_82.php

    Best wishes

    Rachel
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Groupthink can be a dangerous things for any team to get into where people do not speak up or voice their views. This tool provides several ideas and links to additional resources to help avoid groupthink.

    Has anyone had any experiences with groupthink and shifting people to a more positive place?

    Midgie

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