When individuals come together to form a collection of innovative minds, amazing things can result—as long as the team doesn’t resort to “groupthink.” But what is groupthink, and how can it affect an organization as a whole.
What Is Groupthink in Organizational Behavior?
A team falls into groupthink behaviors when members of that team begin prioritizing their membership within the group as more important than finding a realistic and proper solution to a problem.
Groupthink is a term initially coined by psychologist Irving Janis in a 1971 Psychology Today article. Based on the Orwellian “doublethink” from the novel 1984, the term references a phenomenon where the group’s cohesiveness becomes more important than making a good decision. While not every well-balanced and cohesive team will fall into groupthink, it’s essential to understand the concept, the symptoms, and the solutions.
Symptoms of Groupthink Within Organizations
Janis identified eight potential pitfalls that occur when a team succumbs to groupthink. These mentalities are some of the symptoms of groupthink:
1.Invulnerability: “Everything has worked out so far, which means everything will work out in the future.
Groupthink can cause the team to believe they are invincible, special, and nothing bad can happen. Members rely on past performance to justify their beliefs.
2. Morality: “We have a righteous cause which means we can do no wrong.”
Many teams that succumb to groupthink also believe they possess a moral high ground. Their project is important and will bring good to the world, so therefore they reason that no bad decisions can be made.
3. Rationalization: “We all believe this, which means it’s right.”
When teams collectively rationalize their behavior, they assume that the consensus is correct. Groups re-enforce their shared beliefs and close themselves off to criticism or growth.
4. Stereotypes: “Outsiders have no place in our decision-making.”
Teams at risk of groupthink are generally close-knit and shun any outside thinking or opinions. They honor the team first and stereotype those outside their group, marking their contributions as unimportant or less valid.
5.Self-censorship: “I don’t want to appear controversial, so I won’t speak up.”
Any member of a groupthinking team who does have a differing opinion is at risk of withholding their thoughts for fear of being accused of stirring dissension within the group. This self-censorship can mean great ideas are left unspoken.
6.Illusion of unanimity: “No one spoke up otherwise, so we must all agree.”
Silence is not consent. But teams with groupthink tendencies will not dig deeper for more opinions. If no one speaks up, it gives the illusion of unanimity and group harmony.
7.Pressure: “You should change your opinion to match what the rest of us agreed on.”
Sometimes, groupthink causes team members to directly pressure others into conformity. If one person says something against the consensus, they are called out for it and then learn to self-censor in the future.
8.Mind Guards: “This is all we know, so this is the best decision.”
Groupthink decision-making often involves a “mind guard” or a team member who insulates the group from outside facts and opinions. By limiting the amount of information the group has, the mind guard can steer the outcome of decisions.
Impact of Groupthink on an Organization
Groupthink in organizations can lead to some terrible results. Janis postulated that groupthink organizational behaviors are prevalent in governments, publishing a book called Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes in 1972. Janis also blamed groupthink for the Challenger disaster of 1986.
In less drastic circumstances, groupthink destroys creativity within teams, forcing compliance where compromise could have built something greater. Leaders end up with a lack of ideas or feedback. And bad decisions result.
How to Avoid Groupthink
Three things are required to avoid groupthink—sound systems, strong leaders, and an open-minded team. All of these aspects occur in a workplace that values diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
1. Good Systems
Janis believed that proper procedural rules and guidelines (strongly tied to company culture) would help teams avoid groupthink. A strong organizational culture of openness and innovation is required if leaders want team members to be speaking their individual minds.
2. Strong Leaders
A strong leader is the backbone of a good team. Strength here doesn’t mean wielding authority over the group; it means having the cultural awareness and cultural competencies to lead effectively while promoting diversity and team cohesiveness.
3. Open-Minded Teams
When it comes to groupthink management, starting with the right team is critical. We all have implicit biases that tie us to certain social groups. Team members who are already buddy-buddy (in-group bias) may be at risk of falling into groupthink. Diverse teams are less at risk.
4. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
From psychological safety to achieving inclusion, DEI is a topic too broad to cover in a single article. For leaders looking to increase diversity in their teams and avoid groupthink, reflect on the following questions.
Do I recognize and appreciate the nuances of culture and background for each employee, both at work and in their personal life?
What conscious and unconscious biases do I have that may negatively affect my team or workplace culture?
Do I have the self-confidence and self-awareness to face my own shortcomings when it comes to DEI?
Do I regularly lead with empathy and attempt to understand each employee on the team?
When I mitigate conflict, do I do so impartially in a way that doesn’t shut team members down?
How can I make this team a psychologically safe space for all its members?
(Written by Ercell Charles, Vice President of Customer Transformation at Dale Carnegie)