The perils of Groupthink and how to avoid them

Groupthink can happen to anyone, any collection of people and any business. It is something to watch out for and to guard against. Take the 2008 economic crisis, the space shuttle explosion, Swissair’s insolvency and Kodak’s failure to get on board with digital camera tech quickly.

In 1972 the psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as ‘a cognitive bias which encourages people to desire harmony or conformity within a group.’ As he said, ‘In many cases, people will set aside their own personal beliefs to adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.’

Groupthink is all about the systematic errors people make when coming to mutual decisions. You may have noticed it yourself: there’s a tendency for groups to minimise conflict, aiming for consensus without exploring their ideas properly. Humans have a strong need to conform and a powerful desire not to rock the boat. We prefer not to disagree, not to cause delay, put obstacles in the way, or make life harder for others in a group.

Janis theorised that the pressure to conform restricts a group’s thinking to create biased analyses, simplistic thinking and stereotyping, while suppressing people’s creativity and independence. And that’s quite serious.

In a business context where good decisions can have a profound impact on people, profit and the future, Groupthink is well worth avoiding! Here’s what you need to know to stay open to potentially negative outcomes, listen to different opinions, remain creative, prepare for the worst, avoid over-confidence, take note of important information, see alternative solutions, and accept new ideas.

The origins of Groupthink

However rational you feel you are; you’ll probably be prone to irrational decisions when faced with peer pressure to comply. Many people faced with a decision they don’t agree with will keep the peace, staying quiet rather than standing up for their opinions.

It’s human nature to feel a strong need to conform. We’re collaborative creatures whose survival depends on co-operation, a powerful drive that helped keep us alive in our primitive past. When someone has an idea you know isn’t very good, but everyone else agrees with it and the group has decided to pursue it, it still feels difficult to disagree. What if they disapprove? What if you’re rejected? Disagreeing, can at times feel personally threatening and highly challenging. It can feel so unpleasant you naturally want to avoid it.

How do you know Groupthink is happening?

There are clear business benefits to avoiding the biases inherently tucked inside Groupthink. This means it’s important to be aware when a group drifts into it. Janis came up with some signs to look out for, which he called symptoms.

Illusions of unanimity make us feel everyone agrees, making it a challenge to speak out, especially if you’re the only one who seems to have an issue. And illusions of invulnerability can make us feel unrealistically optimistic, leading a group to take unwise risks. It’s easy to see how the appearance of agreement makes everyone in the group believe they’re right.

Unquestioned beliefs are something to watch out for. They let people ignore potential problems and their consequences. Stereotyping – a kind of bias – gives permission for group members to either overlook or actually demonise people who raise concerns or challenge ideas. And self-censorship lets those who have worries assume the group knows best, hiding their feelings rather than sharing them.

If there’s direct pressure to conform, group members who have questions can be labelled as disloyal. A process of rationalisation means people don’t bother reconsidering their beliefs and ignore even the clearest warning signs. Finally we have Mindguards, the self-appointed censors who keep problems they know about to themselves.

How to avoid Groupthink

As a leader you want to move groups into a mode where they think for themselves while remaining collaborative. So what can you do to head Groupthink off at the pass whenever you notice it happening? The first step is to understand why it happens.

Group identity is powerful stuff, something that you see when the members of a group have similar outlooks and values. A particularly strong group identity can make members feel invulnerable, always in the right and even superior to others. If it reaches extremes, members might disapprove of those outside the group, going as far as treating them with disrespect.

The same goes when there’s a powerful leader in charge whose charisma mesmerises everyone. It’s hard to fight your corner against someone like that. Extreme stress and tricky moral dilemmas can drive a team to Groupthink. When people in the group don’t have the knowledge needed to make decisions, or feel others in the group are better equipped, things can also skew into Groupthink.

What to do to banish Groupthink

As a leader you have a suite of useful tools to avoid Groupthink. For a start it’s helpful to create a way to check the fundamental assumptions behind every important decision and validate them, and then evaluate the risks honestly.

Everyone in the group should feel confident to explore objectives and alternatives. Everyone should feel safe challenging ideas without fear. Every assumption should be tested rather than blindly accepted, and ideas that have been rejected should be re-examined without prejudice. It helps to find supporting information from other sources, and it’s vital to handle information objectively.

It’s good to formally structure meetings to give group members the chance to talk about their own ideas and argue against existing ideas. A charismatic leader should step back and give group members the opportunity to come up with their own ideas first, and it’s very helpful to appoint a devil’s advocate at the start, someone formally tasked with pointing out potential problems.

You could bring someone independent in, to sense-check ideas and decisions, and encourage a critical outlook rather than automatic acceptance. Raising doubts at a meeting set up specially for the purpose frees people up to be critical, and rewarding creative thinking encourages it.

It’s wise to pin down beforehand exactly what the best outcome will look like by establishing metrics of some sort, and giving people the chance to submit anonymous feedback can be extremely helpful.

Plus, a diverse team will naturally be less prone to Groupthink than a team of people cut from the exact same professional and personal cloth.

Avoid Groupthink and you’ll go a long way towards avoiding poor business decisions that could damage a company’s profitability, miss out on opportunities, fail to see risks, or send it in the wrong direction.