Groupthink – when more heads aren’t better than one

Picture this: you’ve made the invite list for your organisation’s exec board meeting (hopefully, as a strategic IC advisor). At your first meeting, during a group discussion about a proposed high-impact business change, a senior leader suggests a completely unworkable course of action. Before you can even think “holy shizz – this is bad!”, the meeting erupts into a cacophony of “yes, absolutely”s. No questions, no challenges.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s likely that you’ve witnessed groupthink.

What’s groupthink?

Groupthink is “the mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct or optimal.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The term was pioneered by social psychologist Irving Janis in his 1972 study exploring the psychological mechanism behind successful and disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions, like escalation of the Vietnam War.

Symptoms of groupthink

Janis identified 8 common symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – members feel so secure in the group decision that they ignore obvious signs of danger, favouring excessive optimism and risk-taking instead.
  2. Collective rationalisation – members try to rationalise or discount warnings and other negative feedback
  3. Belief in inherent morality – members view their cause as just, ignoring the moral and ethical implications of their decisions
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – ‘enemies’ are considered too weak and stupid to pose a threat
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – members are strongly encouraged/forced to not share any views or information which go against the majority view
  6. Illusion of unanimity – the majority view is assumed to be held by all group members
  7. Self-censorship – members withhold any doubts or opinions that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  8. Self-appointed mindguards – these members protect the group and its leader from information that challenges the group’s cohesiveness, view and/or decision.

Groups experiencing groupthink tend to make poor quality decisions as a result of defects in their decision-making process, including:

  • Inadequate review of alternative options
  • Failure to examine the risks of their preferred choice
  • Failure to reevaluate previously rejected choices

Causes of groupthink

According to Janis, the key causes of groupthink are:

  • Group cohesion (primary cause)- this term describes the bonds that pull group members toward each other and motivates them to stay with the group. Highly cohesive groups are likely to value group harmony; if they value it over critical thinking and challenge, groupthink is inevitable.

As group cohesion, on its own, doesn’t guarantee groupthink, Janis identified some other necessary, but less important, causes:

  • Isolation of group – groups opt to make decisions in secret or without the involvement of outside opinions, creating the illusion of group invulnerability and unanimity
  • Controlling and inflexible leadership – can create environments where members who disagree with them choose to withhold their own opinions or are silenced by other members
  • Decisional stress – if a group is under pressure to reach an important decision, they may seek to reach the decision quickly and with little discussion, thus relieving any decisional stress.

Project and senior leadership teams can easily fall victim of groupthink if they:

  • have next-to-no diversity (visible or otherwise) among group members who’ve worked together for years – key characteristics of a highly cohesive group;
  • are unwilling to include junior employees or those from different teams in the decision-making process, and
  • are led by people who are only interested in their own vision or agenda.

Hence the drive for more diversity and inclusion, especially in the boardroom and more employee involvement in key strategic decisions – it’s good for employees and makes good business sense.

Groupthink in real life

One of the most famous real-life example of groupthink is the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster which killed all 7 crew members, including a civilian teacher.

The day before the launch, an engineer recommended the mission be postponed due to a serious issue with a critical rocket part. However, after several group discussions, the engineer reversed his no-go position and NASA decided that the launch should go ahead.

The decision makers are thought to have exhibited several groupthink symptoms, including:

  • Illusions of unanimity – NASA managers didn’t report the engineer’s concerns to their superiors, therefore perpetuating the false view that everyone was in favour of the launch going ahead.
  • Out-group stereotypes – concerned engineers were stereotyped as ‘pedantic techies’ who didn’t appreciate political or managerial concern.
  • Direct pressure on dissenters – a senior engineer was urged to ‘take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat’ by his superior who was afraid of losing future NASA contracts. NASA was also under huge pressure – the launch had already been delayed and so they were at risk of losing their federal funding and ruining their reputation with the public.

Tips for IC folk

As our roles often bring us within close proximity of our organisation’s decision-making process (if we’re lucky!) and the employees who are impacted by these decisions, it’s vital that we’re able to identify and help prevent groupthink.

Here’s a few ways we can do this:

  • Seek a seat at the table: we’re uniquely placed to access insight into employee mood and concern; info which is crucial for making effective organisational decisions, especially if it relates to change and the potential People impact is high. If you’re stuck on how to do achieve this – here’s an interesting case study on increasing the IC team’s influence via Gatehouse
  • Bring ‘outsiders’ in: encourage project/leadership teams to open up their meetings to ‘external’ colleagues. Not only will this ensure the group considers alternative views and solutions, it’ll also signal to employees that their feedback matters and help create a more transparent culture. The same applies with IC campaigns – use employee feedback mechanisms to test your plans before you launch.
  • Employ a devil’s advocate or two – when brainstorming ideas as an IC team, encourage everyone to be a critical evaluator. Get teammates to individually write down the pros and cons for ideas generated before discussing as a group. A few of you could even take the role of devil’s advocate to counter popular ideas, encouraging healthy debate and thorough exploration of individual choices
  • If you’re a leader, keep your views to yourself – whether you’re leading a large IC function, campaign or a team activity, your views as a ‘leader’ are likely to influence those ‘following’ you. Employees may even censor themselves if their opinion differs from yours or they think they have a better idea. If your opinions lead the discussion, you’ll miss the opportunity to capitalise on the talents in your group which could stop you from achieving goals.

On Wednesday 29 May, I’ll be exploring the emerging academic research into what makes great leadership communication at H&H’s free global online conference.

Get your *FREE* ticket here!

It’s a brilliant line-up of communication experts (and me!) from across the world so make sure you don’t miss out.

Hope to see you there!

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