2 Famous Groupthink Examples to Learn From

Unless you begin meetings by saying, “I call this assembly of clones to order,” groupthink is likely an uninvited guest, and yet an ever-present threat to conducting productive and successful meetings. As the sworn enemy of innovation, groupthink is nothing more than fear-based conformity. Group members suffering from this malady fear challenging group decisions and value group consensus over common sense and problem-solving.

The results of groupthink can be devastating. For example, a recent article that autopsied costly failures experienced by three well-regarded global companies attributed their failures to one single shared flaw: groupthink. Like an invasion of the body snatchers, groupthink can spread quickly and quietly swaying entire companies into blindly ignoring impending signs of failure. So what can you do to combat this insipid pariah of company meetings? You face-off with it and teach meeting attendees to do the same. Here are 2 famous groupthink examples to learn from.

Groupthink Example #1: The Decline of the American Auto Industry

Primary groupthink symptom: A sense of invulnerability. The group believes its own hype, thinks it always makes right decisions, and can do no wrong. An article about the effects of groupthink on business theorized that the overwhelming reason the bottom fell out of the American auto industry at the end of the last century was because key leaders had allowed “a century of enormous growth, productivity, and profit” make them feel invincible. Feelings of superiority tend to breed an unhealthy lack of respect for competition, and as we all know, pride ultimately leads to falls and failures. 

Solution: Ask hard questions. While it is important to celebrate successes and victories at work, it’s even more important to make sure your team realizes that when you’re on top there are only two possible options: climb higher or be supplanted by the competition. To combat a sense of invulnerability in your team and make meetings more meaningful, require employees to ask questions at each meeting. A couple of ways to introduce this practice are:

  • Interview your competition’s customers — Unlike your competition, their customers are usually very forthcoming about why they made a purchase decision and what influenced it. Ideally, you will want to pre-screen (do they match the market you are targeting?) a few competitor customers before inviting them to a meeting with your team. Next, make sure you have a few pre-written questions ready and are set up to interview customers one at a time via video-conferencing. In addition to allowing you to easily record the interview in a non-invasive way, video conferencing also gives your team a chance to get honest answers that are not influenced by your company’s atmosphere. For example, if you are a Chevrolet executive and you interview a Honda customer, you don’t want them to feel awkward about not choosing you in the first place, which may affect their answers.    
  • Require meeting attendees to ask challenging questions at every meeting — Part of the problem of groupthink is the underlying fear of seeming contrary to the group. You can eliminate this fear by requiring everyone in the meeting to think of a challenge to the topic at hand and ask the group. To ensure this method is successful, send meeting agendas early that let everyone know you expect them to arrive with one or two challenge questions. Then, go around the room and ask each person and remote attendee to pose their question(s). This method not only helps your team consider all angles, it trains your team members to get comfortable with questioning possibilities and considering alternatives.

Groupthink Example #2: The Banking Industry Collapse of 2008

Primary groupthink symptom: Complacency. After making many correct and rewarding decisions the group actively overlooks potential negative consequences of decisions. Much has been written about the simultaneous collapse of the U.S. banking industry and housing market, including the compelling film, The Big Short.

In this film, viewers are treated to an array of groupthink symptoms displayed in numerous scenes based on real events that took place in the banking, real estate and regulatory industries. One article that revealed how complacency played a role in banking’s downfall stated, “Derivative models were never run showing what would happen to a bank’s financial position if house prices began to fall in the years leading up to 2007.”

In hindsight, it seems impossible that an entire industry dedicated to the preservation of money wouldn’t consider the consequences of price fluctuations, and yet, that’s precisely the problem with groupthink, it stops people from challenging the status quo and considering other possibilities. 

Solution: Seek outside opinion. When things are going well, it’s tempting to believe you have arrived, but the problem with “arriving” is there are typically no plans to keep moving forward. Enjoying milestones is one thing; placing bets on the future based on past performances is quite another. To make sure your meeting plans aren’t derailed by boldly going where you’ve always gone before, consider these best practices:

  • Invite Outsiders to Meetings — Diversity is essential to creativity. There’s nothing quite like the unique perspective of an outsider to inspire members of a team to think in new ways, a practice that often leads to “a-ha” moments and innovations. For example, a product development team at a pharmaceutical company that is working on technology that impacts patient safety would be wise to invite outside safety experts to weigh in on any potential problems or additional applications they see. Again, video conferencing is a useful tool in this scenario because it allows outsiders to help you without the inconvenience of physically showing up to the meeting. In the event the topic is privileged information, experts from other departments or company locations can be conferenced in with ease.
  • Take the Pressure Off of People to Conform — If you are a leader, people are naturally looking to you to show them what you want, but this can also cause them to try to please you based on your facial expressions and responses. A smart way to reduce the amount of influence your presence and body language have on a meeting’s outcome is to join it via video, so that you can appear and disappear at will. For example, let’s say you call a meeting to brainstorm solutions to a recurring customer issue. You would introduce the topic, and then give team members an allotment of time to brainstorm solutions while you step away from the video. This easy “out of sight/out of mind” method enables you to reduce your influence and empower team members to speak up.

Say no to groupthink and yes to Highfive

If you need help executing some of the steps to avoid these groupthink examples, Highfive can help. Our all-in-one video conferencing solution with wireless TV projection and remote screen sharing enables you to consult experts from anywhere in the world. Of course, you can also invite folks on the next floor or next building to help your teams examine various approaches. With Highfive, everyone can connect for a vivid video meeting anytime, anywhere. So go ahead, kick groupthink to the curb and give yourself a Highfive.

By Sara Moseley