Picture yourself in a team meeting. One of the more vocal team members proposes a strategy to address a current problem, and everyone nods and agrees without question. The team doesn’t consider other options or examine potential issues with the proposed strategy. No one voices an alternative idea. Instead, everyone moves on.
This is an example of groupthink. In essence, groupthink involves making a decision as a group without much critical thought, discussion, feedback, or dissention. This term was coined in the 1950s, but was popularized by psychologist Irving Janis, who published a book called Groupthink in 1972 (revised in 1982).
Chances are, you’ve experienced some form of groupthink.This phenomenon can crop up in many situations. Perhaps a team leader or particularly vocal group member does not welcome feedback or alternative perspectives. Maybe a group is trying to avoid conflict, or they are working within a tight deadline and do not have time to consider different paths. Or, perhaps, a group lacks diversity and certain perspectives tend to dominate their discussions.
Whatever the case, groupthink can be detrimental for many reasons. Here are my top four:
1. Voices are silenced
When certain people always lead the decision-making process, others tend to be silenced. Even if a team embraces a “majority rules” mentality, that can exclude anyone who thinks differently or has a different perspective. When people feel as though their opinions don’t matter (or are not welcomed), they tend to feel resentful and frustrated. They become complacent because they believe their ideas and voices don’t matter. And that, in turn, can lead to a lack of innovation and out-of-the-box thinking.
2. There are Fewer Innovations
When only a handful of people guide decision-making, a group misses opportunities for innovation. Instead, they continue to approach problems in the same way, from the same limited perspectives. People with alternative points of view may not feel safe offering their ideas, and so those ideas are never brought to the table. This limits creativity and exploration, which can lead a company to stagnate.
3. Flaws May Be Overlooked
When decisions are made quickly, without thorough discussion or pushback, that opens the door to flaws, mistakes, or even ethical concerns. Dissenters may not feel comfortable bringing up a perceived flaw in the plan (“I’ll be overturned anyway. Why bother?”), so proposals are pushed forward without resistance. One poignant example of groupthink causing disastrous results occurred when the Challenger orbiter exploded in 1986. NASA leadership was so preoccupied with launching the rocket on time, they ignored various warnings from their team. The leaders plowed ahead with their flawed decision to launch, and the result was catastrophic. The orbiter exploded, and seven people lost their lives. Though the stakes are probably not as high in the average business, there are stakes and consequences that need to be considered when making decisions.
4. The “In Group” Rules
Groupthink doesn’t leave a lot of room for those with “outsider” perspectives. If the opinions of the minority are continuously ignored or belittled, that can create an us versus them mentality in the workplace. This can cause people to feel like outsiders or bystanders. They essentially stand by and watch as the majority (or, at times, vocal minority) make decisions.
What can we do to combat groupthink, make sure everyone’s voice is represented, and engage in better decision-making? A few effective methods include:
- Collecting anonymous feedback right away
- Dividing a large group into smaller groups before coming together to make a collective decision
- Actively encouraging discussion and feedback
- Hiring and collaborating with a diverse set of team members
- Asking for feedback (privately or in a group setting) from those who are often quiet
- Appointing one team member as “devil’s advocate” to challenge any ideas that are presented
- Evaluating all ideas through a critical, data-driven lens
There are many ways to push back against groupthink. No matter your approach, it’s important to make a concerted effort to promote diverse perspectives, encourage feedback, and approach a problem from various angles before making a decision.