Is Groupthink Blocking Your Success?

By 7 January 2020 Change, Groupthink

Do you feel like you don’t fit in at your team at work?  Are your views and opinions radically different than the rest of the group?  Or perhaps your team is full of the smartest and brightest from the best schools and universities.  In other words, there isn’t diversity.  Is your group leader a charismatic person with a few extra-close direct reports who seem to enforce what they think the leader wants?  These are the classic circumstances under which Groupthink can occur.

What Is Groupthink?

Groupthink occurs when a group of people adopt a mode of thinking that excludes any other possibilities or change.  Essentially, critical thinking is eliminated, no matter how smart the members of the group are.  Along with this, there is most likely pressure to conform and an illusion of unanimity.  Everyone in the group says they are happy to be a part of that group.  They tend to characterize other groups as inferior in some way.  Typically there is a charismatic leader at the helm.

The textbook example of Groupthink that is often cited is President Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs .  (That link is to text, here’s a video Groupthink explanation as well.)

Diagnosing Groupthink

Groups that are diverse in a number of ways are less likely to experience Groupthink.  Think of the many ways in which your team may, or may not be, diverse:

  • gender
  • race
  • experience
  • age
  • country of origin
  • religious beliefs
  • schools and universities attended
  • single vs. married
  • other?

Now ask yourself, “Given our level of diversity, what are the group norms associated with our team?”   For example, if a team is predominantly accountants, what are some group norms about that common background?  In what ways could these norms lead to a lack of consideration of alternatives?

Keep in mind that Groupthink isn’t always overt or existing on a grand scale.  Most of the time the team are unaware of it.  The best people to recognise subtle group norms that could lead to Groupthink are newcomers.  Most newcomers to a team take a quiet role initially until they feel they know the climate enough to contribute.  Unfortunately, if the team culture is a strong one, the newcomer may never fully contribute if he has decided he doesn’t quite fit in.

Checklist Against Groupthink

Not all teams that lack diversity will fall prone to Groupthink.  But before you get too, too comfortable, consider this checklist of the signs of a team trapped in Groupthink:

  • The course of action or the way things are done seems pre-determined.
  • Possible roadblocks are downplayed, and the team fails to develop contingency plans.
  • There is a limited search for, or outright avoidance of, possible alternate solutions.
  • Possible advantages of alternate solutions are given limited consideration.
  • No attempt is made to seek expert advice, either internally or externally.
  • Facts that support the preferred decision are given greater weight than facts that do not.

A Corporate-based Example of Groupthink

Jane made a late career change from Human Resources into Private Banking.  This was certainly no small undertaking, despite her background in strategic planning and her high intelligence.  Over the course of a year she worked full-time and studied in the evenings and weekends, passing all of her exams and work simulation assessments on the first try.

Being single, it was a lonely year for her as she sacrificed time with friends.  She even used holiday time from work for extra study before each certification exam.  In addition to her study, she was making connections in the industry, and even shadowed private bankers to get a feel for the work, to make sure this was the right move.  By the time she finished all her certifications, her focus and determination had paid off and she had landed the dream job.  But a month into her new role, she was ready to quit.

The Deal Breaker

Jane knew that as a single woman in her 40’s, joining the predominantly male private banker world could have its challenges.  There was only one female in the group already–a young, attractive, and intelligent rising star who had had the tutelage of the senior private bankers for several years.  Fitting in as part of this team would be hard, she realised.  She was up to the challenge, and even her clear outsider status was not what made her want to quit.  Ultimately, the biggest hurdle to Jane’s fulfillment in her new role was the group’s mentality about their systems, and their lack of belief in the need to change.

As a strategic thinker and keen analyst, Jane saw numerous opportunities for improvement to the quality and efficiency of the work.  Yet when she inquired about how a system worked and why, the only answer she got was, “This is just the way it is.”  She kept her thoughts to herself, but her colleagues stated them clearly themselves, acknolwedging that the systems were not great, but that eventually she would learn how to work around and within them.  Groupthink had a firm grip on this team.

High Stakes Turnaround

Jane believed that the systems and the group’s way of working around could cause some legal or ethical breaches.  Being too new in role, she was not confident to voice a concern.  Besides, she reasoned, all the senior people in the team were not concerned about the systems.  Surely they carried the most responsibility for them?  She must simply not understand it fully yet, she reasoned.  We talked the situation through and she determined that the big stumbling block for her was the amount of time it would take her to learn all the work-arounds, particularly when she didn’t believe in them. She decided to resign.

Jane’s manager was stunned.  He knew how hard she had worked to get where she was, and now his “diverse” candidate was walking out the door.  He made a commitment to be more available to her, and offered mentoring.  Even though Jane felt she already had secured a lot of support on “how things are done” from her colleagues, she agreed to stay.

After a few weeks of one-on-one time with the manager, Jane was able to suggest some system analyses.  Her manager picked up the hint and adjusted her role to formally include it in her work, even adjusting a percentage of her bonus structure to account for the time she would spend away from clients.  Gradually, Jane’s colleagues also started to question things they hadn’t before, and brought them to her attention.  Ultimately, Jane’s first-class relationship skills and her hard work paid off.  She led her organisation through improvement of the systems that were liabilities.

Avoiding Groupthink

Here is what you can do if you think your team may be cruising toward a Groupthink crash, or if there is a lack of diversity in your team:

  1. Appoint a Devil’s Advocate for each group meeting.
  2. Invite experts from outside the group to challenge members’ views at group meetings.
  3. Split the team into two sections for independent discussions, then compare results.
  4. Assign the same problem to two independent groups.  (Make this double assignment common knowledge between both groups with the express purpose of avoiding Groupthink.)
  5. As a leader, avoid stating your own position and instead promote open inquiry.
  6. Encourage critical, yet balanced evaluation of proposals.
  7. Before making a team decision, team members individually seek advice from other parts of the organisation.
  8. After reaching a preliminary decision on a key course of action, schedule a second-chance meeting to re-open the debate.
  9. Consider other teams you work with.  Are they prone to Groupthink?  As you gather information from them, make sure you get a diversity of perspectives and data sources.  Use active listening skills to ensure others feel you truly understand the information they are providing.
  10. Engage your team members in viewing your group objectively.  Consider what would be inhibiting to a new teammember.  Work to integrate new team members fully through a variety of social and work-related means.

Battling the onset of Groupthink requires diligence from both individuals and teams as a whole.  By experimenting with the ideas above you can avoid it and ensure your team stays fresh, relevant, and in top form.

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures