Don’t Let Groupthink Impede Effective Decision-Making

When making decisions in groups, from a small team meeting to a company-wide retreat, there is always the possibility for groupthink to occur. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that was originally studied by Irving Janis, a research psychologist from Yale University. Mr. Janis’ original definition of the term groupthink was: “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

In group discussions, groupthink may begin to take place as people migrate toward popular options, ignoring those which are less popular but may still need to be considered. Groupthink can prevent your team from evaluating innovative ideas and coming to the best decision.

Understanding Groupthink

Groupthink often happens in groups that perform relationally well, because individual members may let loyalty to the group as a whole prevent them from speaking up during decision-making. Even if members disagree with popular ideas on the table, they may go along with the options being discussed for the good of the group. At the same time, other group members may look down on critics — even those in the group — due to their team loyalty. Some individual members may think that if most group members agree with a particular idea, and the group is cohesive, then the idea must be a good one. When time is limited and a decision must be made quickly, a team is even more vulnerable to groupthink.

Four Groupthink Patterns to Recognize and Avoid

Patterns of groupthink can vary based on organizations and individuals, but themes to watch out for include the following:

1.       The group leader keeps advocating a certain position

If the group has an influential leader, and that leader keeps suggesting a certain course of action, group members may be reluctant to oppose the leader. If you are a group leader, try to refrain from voicing your opinion until others have been heard. If you allow other members of the group to generate ideas, someone else may come up with the idea that you already have in mind. Speaking your mind at the beginning of a meeting can end up leading the team straight into groupthink, as weaker team members feel the need to support your idea out of loyalty (or fear).

2.       When members of the group stay quiet

There should be a robust discussion, especially when discussing an important decision. If group members are quiet or withdrawn, groupthink may be occurring. One idea is to suggest that each team member come up with a solution to the problem at hand before the meeting. When the meeting begins, have two team members present their idea to one another in private and then present to the larger group. Continue allowing the group to hear new ideas one by one until all ideas have been discussed. This ensures that all ideas have a chance to be heard.

3.       When there are many options on the table, but only a few are being discussed

To appease the group, members may be reluctant to discuss all ideas and may appear to be settling for the first reasonable idea. If you observe that the team doesn’t adequately discuss ideas on the table, assign one member the role of devil’s advocate, choosing a different team member for each meeting. The devil’s advocate should question the popular ideas to help the group explore all options.

4.       When team members are afraid to offer up ideas or criticism, for fear of being branded disloyal

An open group should welcome discussion and new ideas. Consider presenting the problem in a team meeting, and asking each person present to write down a possible solution on a piece of paper and hand it to the team leader. The leader can then sort the options and present suggested solutions, categorized by theme. Again, all ideas are heard before groupthink can set in. Another benefit of this method is that ideas are anonymous, so that members don’t fear personal criticism for putting forth an idea.

Groupthink happens at all levels of organization, stifles innovative ideas, and inhibits good decision-making. Implement one of the suggestions above at your next meeting if you notice groupthink occurring.


 

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