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The deadly disease of Groupthink Published: Sunday, February 13, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

         Have you ever been in a team meeting where you thought to yourself, “Well, I just don’t agree with that at all!” And in that same meeting, did you freely speak up? Or did you decide against sharing your opinion because you didn’t want to appear unsupportive? If so, you’ve probably experienced Groupthink, a dynamic that can occur when the desire for group cohesion overrides our common sense to explore all the options or express an unpopular opinion. When Groupthink happens, our positive motivation for reducing team conflict can have a negative, even a disastrous impact on the quality of our decisions. Reality is that, while not a new theory, Groupthink remains a potential and in many cases a real threat to contemporary organizations especially at the levels of executive teams and boards. 

         Irving Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University, originally coined the term “Groupthink” in 1972 in a book titled Victims of groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. At that time he was researching why a team reaches an excellent decision one time and a disastrous decision the next. A revised second edition was published in 1982.   What he found was that a lack of conflict or opposing viewpoints led to poor decisions, because the team did not fully analyze alternatives, and therefore, did not gather enough information to make an informed decision. Janis suggested that Groupthink also is more likely to happen when there is a strong, persuasive team leader, a high level of group cohesion and intense pressure to make a decision within the frame of theories and assumptions that are familiar to the group. The theory lives on to our days through numerous research articles and publications.

         According to research, groupthink is most likely to happen in over cohesive groups, that is, groups whose members like each other and, perhaps more important, like being members of the group. So, they do not want to leave, be forced out, or be ignored by other members, many times because they have fought their political battles to become accepted members. Therefore, they are likely to operate in the group in a manner that seeks the approval and even affection of the other group members. In Janis’ terms, groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.

         These pressures lead such group to fail to thoroughly consider all of the information that the group has or might reasonably obtain that is relevant to the decision. Worse, the group ignores or discounts information that would tend to show a particular decision to be unwise. The concern is that if such information or line argument be present to a group, this would likely lead to a division within the group, destroying its consensus, and threatening an atmosphere of mutual agreement and support. So, groupthink is a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.   

         One well-known example that illustrates this phenomenon is the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986. The launch originally had been scheduled for six days prior, but a series of problems had caused delays. The day before the rescheduled launch, an engineer raised concerns about the o-rings and booster rockets. But the NASA team was anxious to get the mission underway. They ignored serious warnings that contradicted with their goal to launch as soon as possible. Ultimately, their poor judgment cost the lives of seven people.

         Groupthink can be found in far less dramatic situations and less pressurized settings. In fact one of the problems of Groupthink is that groups aren’t aware when they suffer it. Janis could identify the main antecedent conditions as well as the key symptoms of groupthink. Antecedent conditions refer to those conditions, which produce, elicit or facilitate the occurrence of groupthink. The main antecedent conditions of groupthink can be summarized as follows:

  1. Ultra cohesion
  2. Insulation of the group from outsiders and their information or arguments
  3. Lack of methodical procedures for making decisions
  4. Members that are homogeneous in their ideology and social background
  5. High stress from external threats

         How can you tell if your team or organization is suffering from this disease? Groupthink theory reveals the following symptoms to look for:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – we are good at this, no one questions right or wrong.
  2. Mind guards – self appointed members isolate leaders from “disturbing information”.
  3. Rationalization – This is when team members convince themselves that the decision or option being presented is the best one, despite evidence to the contrary. “The other department doesn’t agree with us because they haven’t researched the problem like we have.
  4. Peer Pressure – When a team member expresses an opposing opinion or questions the rationale behind a decision, the rest of the team members work together to apply pressure or coerce that person into compliance.
  5. Complacency - After a few successes, the group begins to feel like any decision they make is the right one.
  6. Moral Superiority – When members of a group view themselves as moral or a decision as a moral one, the pressure to conform becomes even greater, because no individual wants to be perceived as immoral.
  7. Stereotyping – The more a group is alike in their views, the more they may see “outsiders” as different or inferior. The group then uses this perceived inferiority to discredit the opposition.
  8. Censorship – Individuals censor their own opinions in order to conform to the group majority.

         The result of groupthink is defective decision making. This leads the group to an incomplete survey of alternative decision options, failure to conduct a thorough search of information, failure to reappraise decision alternatives originally rejected, failure to have contingency plans should a plan not go as expected, and a selective bias in processing all of the above information; favoring anything that leads to the decision that has been favored or chosen.  

         If Groupthink does set in, see it for what it is and act immediately. If you spot symptoms of Groupthink, discuss them with your team. Once you acknowledge it, you’ll become more conscious of your problem-solving processes. Examine the risks to your group that are associated with all decisions. If the risks are high, make sure you take extra care to vet actions and decisions before they’re finalized. Seek the opinion of outsiders to help test your underlying assumptions. Every group has blind spots. When discussing important issues, divide your whole team into smaller groups for an initial discussion. When you reconvene as a whole group, you’ll have more information to work with and it will be easier to discuss differences. After reaching a tentative decision, go back and surface more fears and doubts about the decision. Ask “what could go wrong?” to make sure the decision is right.

         Decisions produced through Groupthink have a very low chance of being successful. The challenge for any team is to create an effective work environment in which Groupthink is unlikely to happen in the first place.


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