The perils of groupthink: Why great groups do not think alike
Groupthink is a tricky concept. Irving Janis, a social psychologist credited as the first to develop the idea, defined it as a “psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group.” At first Janis’ take on groupthink doesn’t seem so bad. After all, isn’t the point of meeting to gather folks together to come to an agreed upon decision about what needs to be done?
However, Dictionary.com defines groupthink as “the practice of approaching problems or issues as matters that are best dealt with by consensus of a group rather than by individuals; conformity.” Ah, there’s the rub. Tucked behind the semicolon is a one-word definition of groupthink that captures in totality precisely what’s wrong with this phenomenon: conformity.
Just when you thought that conformity was a malady restricted primarily to high schools and suburban neighborhood associations, it rears its ugly head in the conference room, creating an army of clones at your workplace.
What does groupthink look like in the modern workplace?
Groupthink typically happens in a workplace culture where employees fear having an opinion that differs from the ruling majority. In some cases the fear is due to an employee’s own insecurities and his/her desire to fit-in with the group.
In other cases, leadership has cultivated a culture of fear by playing favorites with various employees, groups and departments, and/or surrounding themselves with “like-minded” people. Environments where groupthink thrives typically value harmony and avoid conflict, but the trouble with that approach is that there can be no critical evaluation of ideas and solutions without considering different opinions from those within, as well as those outside a group.
Psychology textbook author, Kendra Cherry, stated in a recent article on groupthink, “The suppression of individual opinions and creative thought can lead to poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving.” The good news is there are steps you can take to address and overcome this challenge, but first we’ll examine how to know whether or not your meeting is going great or going toward groupthink.
Is your group showing symptoms of groupthink fever?
In his extensive research on groupthink, Janis developed a checklist of eight symptoms that your group is united as one, and not in a good way. They are:
- Group cohesiveness is viewed as more important than individual freedom of expression
- The group operates in an insulated atmosphere
- Group leaders demonstrate impartial behavior
- There is no standard method in place for evaluating ideas and decisions
- Members’ social backgrounds and ideology are homogenous
- The group is under a lot of stress to perform
- The group has experienced recent failures
- There is excessive difficulty placed on the task of making a decision, such as a moral dilemma
Suffering from groupthink? There’s an 8-Step program for that
If during your meetings, you notice your group displaying any of the aforementioned symptoms, don’t panic; Janis also developed eight steps you can take to help avoid groupthink and prevent killing critical thinking and creative problem-solving in your group.
Step 1: Require everyone in the group to evaluate ideas critically:
This step is easily performed by asking everyone in the group to take a quiet moment to jot down both pros and cons of ideas that have been submitted before they are discussed. If you are still worried about employees feeling free enough to express themselves you can use a polling app that allows people in the group to vote or comment on topics anonymously.
Step 2: If you’re leading the group, keep your opinions to yourself:
The trouble with being a leader is that your opinions have a big influence on others and timid employees will think twice before dissenting with your opinion or submitting an idea that is better than yours. If your opinions lead a discussion, you will invariably miss great opportunities to discover individual talents and strengths in your group that may prove critical to future successes.
Step 3: If you’re the group leader, consider being a no-show:
Because body language is nearly impossible to hide, you don’t have to say anything for people in the group to know how you feel about a topic, so don’t give them the opportunity. Let members know you value their ideas so much that you plan to be absent from certain group meetings where your presence will excessively influence the outcome.
Step 4: Consider a team approach:
If your group is large, consider randomly dividing folks into smaller groups to work on the same problem. Not only does this approach foster camaraderie between employees, it fuels a competitive atmosphere where the best ideas can win.
Step 5: Thoroughly examine all alternatives:
Once your group has compiled a list of ideas or solutions, submit those ideas to a standardized method of evaluation that answers questions such as: How does this idea support the goal? What are the costs? What are the risks? Etc.
Step 6: Get an outsider’s perspective:
As your group begins evaluating various ideas and solutions, assign each member a task of getting an outsider’s opinion. If the solutions being discussed are sensitive, then ask them to talk to a specific and trusted leader inside the company.
Step 7: Consult an outside expert:
If a project or solution has components that run outside the expertise of the group, consider inviting an outside expert to a meeting to participate in the discussion of the group’s proposed solutions. Outsiders often provide a refreshing change to group dynamics, and expert opinions enable everyone in the group to learn from an expert’s insights and wisdom.
Step 8: Select one person at random to be the devil’s advocate at each meeting:
Once meeting attendees are all present, draw straws to see who will serve as the devil’s advocate for the meeting. The person who is chosen will be charged with “thinking like an enemy” and countering all popular ideas and opinions in the meeting in order to encourage healthy debate and test the strength of opposing arguments.
Take meetings one step further:
Now that you know the signs of groupthink and how to avoid its creativity draining presence in your meetings, you’re one step closer to holding the kind of highly productive meetings where employees feel free to submit their best ideas. But don’t forget face-to-face communication – a crucial component in executing some of the major steps to avoid groupthink. So go ahead, kick groupthink to the curb and give yourself a Highfive.