Groupthink: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Have you ever thought of raising an issue in a meeting, but then did not follow through because you didn’t want to destroy the consensus that the group had built? Or perhaps you did not want to be perceived as rebellious? Have you been a part of a group where everyone was so invested to the “greater good” of the group, yet uncaring of how the group’s actions affect other groups or individuals? If so, you had a groupthink experience.

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

When critical issues are not raised, groupthink may bring negative individual, organizational, and even societal consequences. Some of these consequences may be trivial, yet some other ones may be much more serious, jeopardizing the wellbeing and safety of the group or organization. Investigators believed that groupthink was among the causes of Challenger space shuttle disaster. Several experts at NASA had knowledge and experienced fear about the potential for failure, but pushed their anxieties aside under other experts’ recommendations not to delay the launch.

It is possible, and even probable at some point, for us all to give in to groupthink, no matter how well educated and logical we consider ourselves. There could be several reasons behind groupthink. In some situations, group cohesiveness could become more important than individual freedom of expression. Also, a lack of impartial leadership may contribute to the groupthink phenomenon. Highly stressful external events and moral dilemmas also strengthen occurrences of the groupthink, and we go ahead with what feels most comfortable, not necessary right.

So what can we do as employees and as leaders to avoid groupthink?
Each of us can:
Treat conflict as a natural part of any group process, and embrace rather than avoid it. Do not expect others to always agree with you. When disagreements happen, try to defend your opinion in a respectful and balanced way – avoid attacking others, but also avoid withdrawing from the discussion or neglecting your viewpoint.
Avoid quickly criticizing other ideas without thinking them through. While an initial idea may seem undoable or unconventional, listen to the other team member intently. Try to genuinely understand the reasoning behind the idea, and if you still do not understand, then proceed asking questions in a nonthreatening, but curious manner.
Take a risk and play devil’s advocate. Challenge the group to address a different perspective. Although it may slow down the decision-making process, it will likely enlighten other members as to other ways of assessing the issue. At the very least, it will refresh a group’s dynamics.

As, leaders and decision makers, we can embrace more effective techniques of group facilitation and organizational management:
Take on the role as a group facilitator and not as an expert-decision maker who is using a group to download his decisions. High-quality decisions are usually made through a group process and not by one person regardless of that person’s experience and expertise.
Pay attention to the balance between information sharing and asking for input from employees. When you solicit input, attend to the competing views, not only the ones that support a single take on the issue.
Present the issue to an employee as “a problem statement.” List the pieces of credible information that may assist in generating potential solutions and making a decision.
Assign the role of “critical evaluator” to a member or several members of a group on a rotating basis. This provides “permission” to the members to freely express objections and doubts.
Utilize “brainstorming” technique. Brainstorming is a two stage process – first the group works on generating ideas, and then evaluating these ideas. During idea generation stage, the group follows three rules. First, focus on quantity of ideas. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution. The second rule is to withhold criticism. In idea generation stage, evaluation of ideas should be put ‘on hold’. Instead, participants should focus on extending or adding to ideas. By suspending judgment, participants will likely be more comfortable to generate unpopular ideas. The final rule is to welcome unusual ideas. Participants are encouraged to put out any ideas, even the ones that may seem “wacky” or undoable. Once the group exhaust all ideas, then they work together on evaluating, combining, and improving them.
To prevent group isolation, it is helpful to bring in new participants on a regular basis, use outside experts, or invite the group to meet off-site. The changes in settings and surroundings may be a good trigger to evaluate an issue from different viewpoints.
When tackling larger and critical issues, an organization should set up at least two independent groups, that work on assessing the same problem and generating problem solutions.

So, while each group and organization carries some inherent risk for groupthink to occur, the groupthink risk can be minimized with higher level of awareness and effective group facilitation techniques.