You sit down for a team meeting. Everyone appears to agree on all discussion points and you leave satisfied that you have reached the right decision. Sound like a productive meeting?

97% of employees believe a lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project. So, if you are well-aligned, you should easily be able to reach the same conclusion… right?

Though it might seem to be positive on the surface, you and your colleagues might have just unknowingly engaged in the psychological phenomenon known as groupthink. Just because everyone agrees on the same thing does not mean that no issues will arise further down the line, and groupthink could be the root cause of the problem.

What is groupthink?

The Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines groupthink as:

[a] 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.

The term was first coined by by psychologist Irving L. Janis in the 1970s, and he looked extensively at group dynamics, beyond just what happens when groupthink is at play.

How does groupthink happen?

Groupthink can arise whenever we potentially get together for a group discussion. When critical evaluation needs to take place, some might feel uncomfortable speaking up or challenging the group leader, especially if they are in a position of power over the challenger. If no one introduces a critique of the decision-making process out of fear or discomfort, then a true consensus is not going to be reached.

According to one study, 65% of participants noted that they preferred to stay silent at work even if doing so wasn’t authentic to their true selves. Though it can be intimidating to speak up and offer critique on the topic at hand, it is a necessary part of the collaboration process.

Janis suggested that groupthink often happens when the group has at least one of the following conditions:

  1. A persuasive leader – an influential figure that holds sway over the group
  2. A high level of cohesion – a level of synergy usually admired in team dynamics
  3. Pressure from an external source to make a decision – senior bosses or stakeholders expecting answers

Some scholars also include group isolation as a metric to measure the likelihood of groupthink occurring. If a team is used to working on their own with little input from other departments, they may develop their own status quo, potentially and deliberately isolating themselves from other colleagues as they do so.

What does groupthink look like?

Groupthink will always carry with it certain symptoms. If we are to overcome groupthink, we need to be vigilant for these symptoms so we can re-centre discussions and reintroduce critical thinking to the task at hand.

Here are five common groupthink symptoms to watch for.

1. Complacency

If your team is used to delivering results and getting a good response from clients, unfortunately, complacency can begin to creep in. Teams may even become averse to risk and will pursue greater risks with little critical thought, and instead nothing but a belief that they will succeed as they always do.

We all want to do well at our jobs, but we should not reach a state where we are content to rest on our laurels. Evaluation and improvement should be part of our working journey, as it is only through this evaluation and change that we see growth.

Example: A marketing team has consistently produced successful campaigns in the past. Due to their previous achievements, they become complacent and resistant to exploring new strategies or considering alternative approaches. They might assume that their past successes guarantee future success without critically evaluating new ideas or market changes.

2. Rationalisation

Rationalisation occurs when team members find a way to explain away any alternative perspectives that may be fielded in their direction. Unless the reaction that they get is what they want to hear, they will come together to rationalise the potential falsehoods of the other group.

If it feels like there is a bit of an “Us vs Them” mentality when listening to outside perspectives, the group might be actively rationalising against these viewpoints.

Example: A project team, faced with a challenging issue, might dismiss dissenting opinions by rationalising that they have always followed a certain process and it has worked before, so there’s no need to consider alternative solutions. They might downplay the importance of differing perspectives and convince themselves that their approach is the only viable one.

3. Peer pressure

We all have this need to fit in and belong. Peer pressure can arise out of this desire to conform and a fear of being seen as not one of the team. When this happens, some people may change their actions and behaviour to align with those of the wider group.

Example: In a creative team, members might feel pressured to conform to the preferences of a dominant leader or the majority. Even if someone has reservations about a particular design or strategy, they may hesitate to voice their concerns out of fear of not fitting in or being perceived as challenging the established group consensus.

4. Stereotypes

As the group aligns more closely and begins to mirror each other, they will begin to view outsiders with mistrust. Anyone who is not a part of the group will become an opponent, and stereotypes about these outsiders will become generalised thinking.

These stereotyped beliefs then become incredibly easy to apply by the group to the many, even if they simply aren’t true.

Example: A department with a long-standing team culture may develop stereotypes about employees from other departments, assuming that their ideas are less valuable or that they don’t understand the specific challenges the team faces. This can lead to a closed-minded approach where external input is dismissed based on preconceived notions.

5. Self-censorship

Self-censorship can often arise alongside peer pressure. Since we want to fit in and conform with the majority, we are reluctant to speak up and voice alternative perspectives.

Rather than offer a counter-argument that might provide a beneficial viewpoint, self-censoring individuals shall hold them back. They don’t want to rock the boat, and might even feel like these opposing opinions are invaluable and detrimental to discussions.

Example: During a brainstorming session, an employee may have a unique idea that deviates from the group’s usual approach. However, fearing rejection or potential conflict, they choose to keep their idea to themselves. The team misses out on a potentially innovative solution because individuals are reluctant to voice dissenting opinions.

How do we avoid groupthink?

More often than not, groupthink is unintentional and can pass unnoticed. Therefore, when we consider how to avoid groupthink, we are required to pay active attention to meetings and talks where groupthink is likely to take place. This is something that, unfortunately, must be proactively guarded against, or the decision-making process could be unduly hampered by it without anyone actually realising.

Here are five strategies to help team members avoid groupthink during meetings.

Play the devil’s advocate

The role of devil’s advocate used to be a very real position in the Catholic Church, but nowadays is more frequently assigned to someone who will deliberately poke holes in a point of view.

Choosing someone to play devil’s advocate is useful when trying to avoid groupthink, as there will be a designated voice to speak against the viewpoint and position that the group takes. By delivering an opposing line of thought, it should be easier to see where the weaknesses are in the current proposal.

>The devil’s advocate doesn’t even necessarily have to agree with the stances that they choose to offer – the important act comes in the realisation and proposal of them in the first place.

Exercise rapid ideation

Rapid ideation is a brainstorming technique where participants write down as many ideas as they can in a short space of time. Taking even just ten minutes to throw out anything that might come into your head can quickly produce a long list of potential ideas.

This method avoids self-censorship as you simply do not have the time to get in your own head about whether or not an idea is any good. It also means that other people cannot shoot down any ideas when they are little more than suggestions; everyone has an equal chance to present a proposal.

Encourage diverse groups

When we gather people of different backgrounds together, they will bring with them naturally varying viewpoints. Research from Cloverpop found that diverse teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time. Good decisions are made when there are people to challenge ideas and offer contrary opinions, and this happens most naturally when diverse groups come together for discussion. These diverse voices need to be welcomed into discussion spaces.

We will all have our own experiences and biases that might affect the decision-making process. Choosing to foster a culture of diversity from leadership down will help to bring together different perspectives who are not afraid to challenge a proposal.

Consider all the possible consequences

One way to navigate around groupthink is to consider all consequences that might arise as a result of the decision. By considering both negative consequences and good outcomes, group members are put in a position where they have to actively consider the implications of a decision. Is there any risk involved? If so, what could happen as a result of things going wrong?

The full weight of any consequences must be considered and accepted before the decision moves forward. If there is a significant issue that might arise as a result of the proposed actions, a team needs to consider the risks seriously. If there are more negative consequences than good, it might be wise to re-examine the issue at hand.

Practise figure storming

Similar to the devil’s advocate, the group picks someone who is not in the room and thinks about how they would react to the current proposal. It might be a leader within the organisation, a public figure the group admires, or perhaps even a fictional character!

Though it might seem a little odd to think about how Michelle Obama or Gandalf might approach a problem in business, actively putting yourself into someone else’s shoes can produce some great results. With people thinking as others, they might be more inclined to offer ideas. Limitations like budget and deadlines might also be temporarily ignored in favour of simple ideation, and in doing so, the team might discover the optimal route to choose.

Become a leader who listens

When looking for tips on how to avoid groupthink, whether they are the ones we have listed above or some other of the many strategies out there, so much of it circles back around to leadership. In fact, 70% of the variance in employee engagement can be attributed to management.

Leaders need to create groups in which team members value one another’s decisions and will readily encourage the sharing of opinions. To break down a leader’s biases and expectations, and to motivate them to maximise their personal and professional potential, it may be wise to invest in leadership coaching.

ChangingPoint’s Personal Impact Leadership Programme is designed to break habits, challenge attitudes, and change behaviours, which is precisely what must be done if groupthink is to be overcome and better decisions are to be made.

Don’t be complacent and think that a unanimous decision is a good thing – it might be a symptom of a much larger issue. True collaboration can never happen if people are not willing to think critically and challenge discussions.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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