How to Avoid Groupthink in your Organisation
by Dr Andrzej Grossman
All professions, organisations and teams are susceptible to groupthink and group polarisation.
In groupthink, organisations and teams value consensus more than free thought.
The emphasis on consensus can lead to group polarisation where a group’s position becomes more extreme than any individual group member would have proposed.
If a group forgets it is there to make the best possible decision with the information it has, then it may end up with a poor or irrational decision.
Group members go with the flow for fear of looking stupid or undermining their perceived individual reputations.
But good decision-making has nothing to do with harmony or conformity. Groups need to actively test ideas and assumptions.
Take a group of five people and two of them are wrong about something.
You only need doubt in the mind of one other person and suddenly you risk creating a majority of people who are wrong. Because the group of five want to agree with one another, it will be enough to discourage the other two members from asking questions and persuade them to support the majority view.
Healthy conflict is side-stepped by the desire for harmony where group members prefer to trust their perceived good judgement, usually expressed by the most dominant voices.
Groupthink is also pervasive when high emotions are involved. Teams will exaggerate small victories and make believe they have achieved something earth-shattering, or teams in crisis will fall into a doom loop, seeing everything as a mess or failure, or demonising others with a sense of groupthink righteousness.
Symptoms of Groupthink
When complacency sets in, groupthink has already taken grip. Aspects to watch out for are:
- Creating excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks or losing perspective
- Discounting or discrediting warnings and not reconsidering assumptions
- Believing in the moral virtue of the team’s approach and ignoring the practical consequences of decisions
- Constructing negative stereotypes of those outside the team, making effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary
- Feeling under pressure not to argue against any of the team’s views, ideas or preconceptions, seeing such opposition as disloyalty
- Doubts about the team’s perceived consensus not being expressed
- The majority view and judgements falsely being perceived as unanimous with silence being taken as consent
- Some team members protecting the group, particularly the leader, from adverse information or bad news that might threaten team self-approval.
Advice on Avoiding Groupthink
- Groupthink is harmful to healthy decision-making. As both a group leader or group member there are a number of ways to avoid it:
- Reframe disagreement as a necessary characteristic of high performing teams. That conflict lies at the heart of creative thinking and good decision-making
- Invite discussion and encourage your colleagues to contribute their insights, observations and ideas (rather than opinions)
- Don’t assume the loudest person is the most confident in their views
- Give opportunities for people to work alone and prepare before meetings. For example, send meeting agendas early and let everyone know you expect them to come to the meeting with one or two challenging questions.
- Avoid quickly judging other ideas or suggestions. Hear them out and then make your contributions
- Pose questions, not opposition. Use questions to see if you can persuade your colleagues to accept your point of view. For example, rather than saying “This will never work” you could ask “How do you see that working?”
- Take turns having a different team member facilitate meetings. If you are the leader, this will help you keep your head in the content of the discussion and not make you worry about, or overly influence, the process
- Nominate critical evaluators of decisions and plans. This could include anything from asking others in the team to play a devil’s advocate role, asking an external facilitator to challenge the group or, taking the idea further, forming a ‘red team’ – an external expert team to subject organisational plans or ideas to deliberate and rigorous challenge
- If you are a leader, consider being absent from part or all of a group meeting to avoid overly influencing decisions.
Protect the group.