-reading time: 3 minutes- / -audience: leaders, teams and team members-
Groupthink: Group statics, not dynamics
Group dynamics, one of my favourite topics. Group dynamics allow you to observe, to spot the priming, polling & framing, and teamship.
But sometimes a team is not all too dynamic, but rather static. Groupthink has entered the meeting room, with all of its inherent consequences.
The group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgement. Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanise other groups.
So what are the symptoms and how can we overcome groupthink?
The grounding of the flying bank
A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members have a similar background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions and when there are no clear rules for decision making. Such groups produce irrational strategies, decisions, plans, actions and designs out of a desire to reduce social conflict within the group. This group creates a sense of connectedness and belonging amongst members.
According to Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University, groupthink was a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.
Groupthink does not only happen in the teams you know in your company, but at executive level as well. A notable example of groupthink has been demonstrated by Aaron Hermann and Hussain G. Rammal in their research focusing on the grounding of Swissair – the Grounding of the Flying Bank in 2001, its nickname due to its financial stability. According to the authors, Swissair showed clear symptoms of groupthink:
- The belief that the group is invulnerable and the belief in the morality of the group
- Before the fiasco, the size of the company board was reduced, subsequently eliminating industrial expertise
- This may have further increased the likelihood of groupthink
- With the board members lacking expertise in the field and having somewhat similar background, norms, and values, the pressure to conform may have become more prominent
- This phenomenon is called group homogeneity, which is an antecedent to groupthink
- Together, these conditions may have contributed to the poor decision-making process that eventually led to Swissair’s collapse
Spot the groupthink
In 1972, Irving Janis identified the following 8 symptoms of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability: the group creates excessive optimism that encourages taking risks
- Collective rationalisation: members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions
- Belief in inherent morality: members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions
- Stereotyped views of out-groups: negative views of the ‘enemy’ make effective responses to conflict seemingly unnecessary
- Direct pressure on dissenters: members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views
- Self-censorship: doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed
- Illusions of unanimity: the majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous
- Self-appointed mind guards: members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions
FIX THE groupthink
Don’t appoint a biased leader, but find a neutral leader, who emphasises an open inquiry. The group itself must be fully aware of the principles of groupthink.
Within the group, every critical note must be welcome. Unpopular alternatives should be considered and strong team members should play the role of the devil’s advocate.
If possible, divide the group into subgroups and hire outside experts. Preliminary consensus should be discussed with people outside the group before final conclusions are reached.