Have you ever been in a group discussion, where it seems like a decision was made that nobody actually thought was ideal?
You might have just witnessed a psychological bias known as groupthink.
Groupthink occurs when a group of people need to make a decision, and due to the pressure of not creating conflict between the group members and a desire for harmony, come to an irrational or dysfunctional decision.
This might then also result in ongoing work in a team, or even an entire company, trying to avoid conflict and keeping the status quo.
The theory was first extensively put forward by Irving Janis in 1972, and expanded upon by him in the 1980s, based on this investigation into policy and military failures due to poor decision making. He postulated that groupthink may be the result of several causes and symptoms experienced by a leadership group, including:
- Perceived invulnerability by external threats
- That they are doing the “morally right” thing
- Lack of impartiality or existence of bias in leadership
- Insulation and homogeneity within the group
- Lack of processes and methods to critically check information
- Illusion of unanimity, that people think everyone is thinking the same thing
Some famous examples of groupthink failures include:
- The Bay of Pigs: where a military plan developed by a previous administration was not critically reviewed with more up-to-date information
- Pearl Harbour: where lack of perceived threat and precaution resulted in a huge military loss
- The Challenger Shuttle explosion: where the day of launch was rushed for publicity reasons, even after engineers warned the weather could result in catastrophic failure of the rocket.
Groupthink can be especially true in groups with a powerful in-group bias, who want to avoid doing something that might exclude them from the group. For example, many large companies have failed, and many large political and military failures could have been avoided because leadership did not want to hear bad news.
For example, one research study has indicated that groups with a leader who had a “power motivation” style were more susceptible to groupthink.
While Janis initially listed out a number of possible causes for groupthink, subsequent research attempts and reviews have made this hard to study and replicate in a controlled setting. Only some, but not all, of the possible symptoms of groupthink could be verified in a laboratory setting.
There are however some things that all teams can do to reduce the likelihood that they will suffer from groupthink.
- Alternative possibilities: conflicting information should always be impartially considered
- Delegation: Leadership does not need to be present in all aspects of investigating and developing proposals
- Decision-making processes: documentation and understanding of what criteria are being used to make a decision
- Psychological Safety: allowing people to be heard when they share negative information
- Diversity of thought: by reducing in-group homogeneity, you might reduce the risk of everyone believing they think the same way
So if your team ever feels like there is something “off” about how a decision was reached, it might be valuable to consider whether the group was suffering from groupthink, and consider the alternative options again.
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