Research on small groups has found that people in groups tend to “like” people who are most like them. They tend to establish norms or limits to behavior to make sure similarity and harmony is nurtured or even enforced. This normal group behavior (groupthink) can turn into a problem, however, because breakaway ideas that may cause fractures in the group norms are necessary for the group to progress and innovate.
The term “groupthink” was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. It happens when behavioral norms are enforced to maintain group cohesiveness but lead to “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgement.”
Symptoms of Groupthink:
Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink, as quoted by Psychologists for Social Responsibility:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions
Groupthink leads to bad decisions because it encourages members of the group to ignore possible problems with the group’s decisions and discount the opinions of outsiders. When members of the group are too comfortable with each other, similar in background, or become insulated from outside influences and information, groupthink can be a big problem. It influences decisions most when there are no clear rules for decision making.
Groupthink is especially dangerous in business groups where cohesiveness is backed up by financial rewards and personal advancement, along with the threat of exclusion. Often, as executive coach Dr. Pete Stebbins notes, groups make internal value judgments that are unfair to those outside the group. When that happens, though, there are no or few consequences because there’s little accountability to anyone outside the group.
Teams that have developed a strong in-group familiarity from long association may feel comfortable making decisions in isolation, believing their decisions will never be challenged. Notable examples of this occur all the time in the banking and financial industries—if you’ve seen the recent Oscar-nominated film “The Big Short,” you’ll see what I mean.
Essentially, in a group that has succumbed to groupthink, any viewpoints that may contradict the general consensus of the group are self-censored to preserve cohesiveness. Groupthink symptoms include a collective sense of invulnerability and overconfidence, when members rationalize away problems and explain away threats to success. Members begin to consider membership as a mark of superiority, and justify their actions as part of a greater good that only they can see. And they disregard new ideas that may call their past assumptions into question.
Examples of Groupthink:
In July 2001, Swissair, the Swiss national carrier, which had been so financially stable that people called it “the flying bank,” suddenly collapsed. Just before that, Swissair insiders eliminated much of the industrial and technical expertise from its governing board. This decision is regarded by many as the result of insider groupthink, reducing dissonance that threatened cohesiveness on the board.
In 1999, the members of the Major League Umpires Association were so convinced of their unified position that 54 of them resigned en masse, thinking they could force negotiations with MLB for a new labor agreement. Groupthink robbed them of their ability to consider the likely outcome. The baseball owners accepted and finalized the resignations of 22 umpires, hiring new ones. MLB de-certified the union, which was eventually replaced by the World Umpires Association.
Combating groupthink has been the subject of a lot of research since Janis introduced the idea in 1972. While it can be insidious and hard to change once it’s taken root, groupthink can be fought—it just takes concrete strategies that ensure dissenting opinions are heard.
Formalize the questioning process. Groups should organize regular feedback reviews where each member is expected to come up with a reservation or problem regarding the project or problem being worked on. These discussions can really get members to question the group's decisions. The fact that the objections are mandated by the group rules removes the threat of disapproval by other members.
Institute anonymity. There should always be a way for group members to anonymously raise concerns about ideas or solutions the group comes up with. Many people, regardless of group cohesiveness, feel uncomfortable bringing up objections in a group, especially when they’re less experienced or newer members. There could be a document where group members can contribute questions and concerns anonymously, or a designated team member with whom others should bring these up.
Bring in outsiders. Chances are, you won’t have an in-group expert on every aspect of a project. Bringing in outside specialists to investigate the group’s ideas can ensure that nothing is overlooked or ignored if it doesn’t fit neatly into the group’s vision.
Allow extra time. Often, tight deadlines can exacerbate the problems of groupthink because it’s easier to just “get it done” in the easiest way than to really take a close look at the work. Extra time should always be built into projects for decisions to be examined and reconsidered before anything is permanent.
Groupthink is a risk when any number of people works together closely for an extended period of time. That kind of group cohesiveness can produce amazing results, but it can also lead to bad decisions because the group’s assumptions aren’t regularly questioned. Just as individual innovators have to constantly question the status quo in the world at large in order to come up with truly new ideas, this same process has to play out in groups of innovators, who should always question their own group’s conclusions.
Please contact me to learn more about what makes successful, innovative teams.