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Groupthink: what it is, how to spot it and why you need to avoid it

Business · 4 min read

How your team can avoid the groupthink trap

At 11:38am on a bitterly cold day in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger and its seven crew members accelerated into the clear blue Florida sky, heading for space. But the mission was about to take a tragic turn.

The shuttle had been airborne for 60 seconds when a failed o-ring seal on the right-side booster rocket caused a devastating chain of events. Within moments, the shuttle had disintegrated in a cloud of fuel vapor, killing all onboard.

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What went wrong?

The commission set up to investigate what happened (which also included Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman) discovered that the o-ring seal was a known problem. What’s more, engineers had been warning NASA’s senior management for at least a year. In fact, the o-ring fault had been discussed in an emergency meeting the night before the launch. Given the information being presented to them, the logical decision was to delay the launch. Yet it went ahead as planned – with catastrophic consequences.

How did a team of rocket scientists approve the launch given such grave warnings? Social psychologists believe the underlying cause was a behavioral phenomenon known as ‘groupthink’.

What is groupthink?

Groupthink is the tendency for teams to prioritize – often subconsciously – the harmony of the group over the need to make a balanced decision. It can happen to teams everywhere, from the public sector to blue-chips. For NASA, it meant a complete reassessment of its organizational culture in the months and years following the Challenger disaster. The term ‘groupthink’ was first used in the 1950s – inspired by the idea of ‘doublethink’ from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 1972, the word ‘groupthink’ was re-purposed by social psychologist Irving Janis in his study of foreign policy foul-ups. Janis defined groupthink as a “psychological drive for consensus at any cost.”

What impact could groupthink have on businesses like yours

Groupthink can lead to bad decision-making in teams. Some team members might stay quiet. Some might feel ignored. Others may even go along with the team consensus when they know, deep down, that they believe the decision to be wrong. And if you’re thinking ‘that would never happen in our team’, take a look at the infamous Asch conformity experiment. It demonstrates exactly how social pressure can persuade an individual to knowingly answer a question incorrectly and make a choice against their better judgement. Social pressure – even when not intended – is powerful stuff.

How to spot it

If your business works in teams (and whose doesn’t?), look out for these symptoms:

  • The illusion of invulnerability – is your team being overly optimistic and taking risks?
  • The team works well together – does the team work well as a group? This doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But it can lead to over-confidence in the collective wisdom of the group.
  • Leadership bias – does the team leader have their own strong views on the preferred outcome?
  • Dismissing warnings – is your team too quick to dismiss challenges to the group's assumptions?
  • Stereotyping – are team members being negative or insulting to anyone with a dissenting view? Are words like ‘weak’, ‘biased’, ‘stupid’, or ‘disloyal’ being used?
  • The illusion of unanimity – is silence being taken as tacit agreement? Be sure to get everyone’s vote.
     

Lessons from The Bay of Pigs

As examples of groupthink go, there are few better than the 1961 Bay of Pigs incident. US President John F. Kennedy was convinced that a rapid invasion was best, but he was surrounded by advisors who either agreed with him or didn’t dare give a dissenting opinion. The result was a botched invasion and embarrassment for the US government. But JFK learned a valuable lesson.

The very next year, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President took a different approach. He appointed a devil’s advocate who always argued for the opposing viewpoint. He skipped meetings to ensure his opinion didn’t sway others on the team. The result was a more considered set of decisions that helped narrowly avoid nuclear war.

Seven tips to help your business out-think groupthink

Skip meetings: As a team leader, your opinion counts for a lot. In fact, it can sway others into thinking the same way. This can be for any number of reasons, and no – it’s not because they’re weak or easily persuaded.

Appoint a devil’s advocate: During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK appointed his brother, Robert, to the role of devil’s advocate. This made the rest of the team think harder about the validity of its own decisions.

Make sure everyone knows what groupthink is: This might be the most important tip here. Don’t keep the idea of groupthink a secret. Communicate to your team so that everyone knows what to look out for and how to avoid it.

Strive for cognitive diversity: There’s a good chance your team consists of a homogeneous set of individuals with similar backgrounds and experiences. Widen the net and bring a broader range of thinkers into your team. You need different opinions, not more of the same.  Want to find out how? Read more here.

Make sure your team isn’t an island: Document your decisions (noting what was discussed, the options considered, who said what, etc.) or ask the opinion of a separate team. Or do both.

Don't treat conflict as a dirty word: Groupthink happens because conflict is avoided, not embraced. Help your team understand how constructive disagreements can be a good thing. Remember, debating is different to arguing. 

Bring in the experts: Find a subject matter expert and ask them to sit in on your team meetings. Being an outsider with first-class knowledge of the topic will add a fresh viewpoint. They might challenge some of your basic assumptions. 

How to build the perfect business team

From Myers-Briggs to the Five Factor Model, find out how to design the best possible team here.

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