Groupthink has led to some of the biggest mistakes in organizational history. It’s been blamed for the beginning of the end for Kodak , the collapse of SwissAir and even for the most recent financial crisis . It’s a situation that comes naturally to humans and without a conscious effort to avoid it, it’s almost inevitable . Here we take a look at the eight main characteristics of groupthink according to acclaimed social psychologist Irving Janis who coined the phrase, and how to avoid them taking root in your business.
1) Pressure to conform
Groupthink begins when voices that dissent from the commonly held view are directly pressured to conform. This kind of mentality tends to emerge in a cohesive group led by a hands-on, controlling leader. It can be avoided by ensuring no single manager has so much control over a single group, and encouraging open discussions where employees can provide active, critical feedback.
2) Collective rationalization
This refers to groups who avoid information that goes against their current ideas and decisions. Independent oversight and direct engagement with different groups, whether other internal departments and employees or external expert advisors, can prevent groups hiding from the facts.
3) ‘Inherent morality’
Having shared goals and objectives is great, particularly if they connect with a broader corporate vision. However, if a group aligns in this way, they can start to believe that this shared moral identity justifies their decision -- and therefore they ignore any ethical and moral consequences. Breaking down management silos and connecting teams with information from the wider organization, industry and beyond should help provide perspective.
4) Feeling invulnerable
On a close-knit team, particularly a successful one, people can feel like they’re immune to failure. This, in turn, causes them to take unnecessary risks. Such behavior can be avoided by appointing critical evaluators to run the rule over decisions and plans, and raise concerns in an open environment.
5) ‘Them and us’ mentality
This symptom casts people from opposing groups as evil or stupid. As a result, those stuck in the groupthink mindset tend to avoid conflict resolution and pursue their own course of action. This can be tricky to resolve, but structurally it can be avoided by ensuring departments and teams all share similar organizational goals and values, and can communicate freely.
6) Protecting against ‘outsiders’
An extension of the ‘them and us’ mentality, this causes members of a group to cast themselves as guardians of the group ideals. In organizations where conflict and disagreement is reframed as a necessary ingredient of good teams, this can be quickly discouraged in favor of healthy, open debate.
Open debate cannot become part of corporate culture when group members consciously avoid information that shifts them from group consensus. One of the simplest solutions is to schedule mandatory meetings and company conferences that present challenging, cutting-edge information from the industry. You could also consider forming teams and projects that investigate different approaches to company business, in order to compare and contrast the results.
8) An illusion of unanimity
Ultimately, groupthink comes from a good place -- a desire for consensus among the team. Unfortunately, this can lead to reliance on consensual validation. Understanding that a strong company culture and vision can still be underpinned by healthy, open debate and new, challenging ideas is central to ensuring groupthink doesn’t take root.
While groupthink is not going away, and there will continue to be significant failures as a result, by encouraging healthy communication and debate and utilizing the overused and often undermeant phrase “no idea is a bad idea” you will reduce the risk that groupthink will infiltrate your organization.