Groupthink

Description

Drawing of a castleAt the opposite extreme from having constant conflicts is “groupthink,” in which team members conform their thinking too much, cutting off debates and refusing to consider alternate information. Researchers have identified this as a primary factor in poor decision-making in small groups, and in major historical failures from Britain’s pre-war attempt to placate Nazi Germany to the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. Research indicates groupthink can happen at any stage of team development. When members are climbing the Team Mesa, for example, it might be used to reduce conflicts by pressuring people to “be a team player.”

A team is prone to groupthink when it:

  • Becomes “insulated from experts.”
  • “Performs limited search and appraisal of information.”
  • Operates “under directed leadership.”
  • Has “high stress… and little hope of finding a better solution… than that favored by the leader or influential members.”[1]

A healthy team will be using “teamthink” instead, signs of which are:

  • “Encouragement of divergent views,”
  • “Open expression of concerns/ideas,”
  • “Awareness of limitations/threats,”
  • “Recognition of (each) member’s uniqueness,”
  • “Discussion of collective doubts.”[2]

The manager must stay alert to the possibility of groupthink, because it is very difficult for the team to recognize it has the problem.

Solutions

If you suspect groupthink is happening:

  1. Assign someone who can be objective the task of discussing with the team stakeholders, and then the team, whether they see signs of the following:
    • Illusion of Invulnerability—A sense that the team cannot make mistakes or be hurt.
    • Collective Pessimism—The opposite of the Illusion of Invulnerability, in which the team tends to focus on obstacles instead of opportunities.
    • Collective Rationalization—A tendency to come up with rationalizations that counteract negative information, instead of changing group thinking to account for that information.
    • Illusion of Morality—An unquestioned belief that the team is always morally right.
    • Shared Stereotypes—Team stereotyping of other groups or managers.
    • Direct Pressure—Peer pressure on doubters to conform to the team’s thinking.
    • Self-Censorship—Team members indicating through nonverbal actions that they do not agree with the team, but refusing to speak up.
    • Illusion of Unanimity—Taking the idea of “silence is consensus” too far by forcing that silence through either direct pressure or ignoring self-censorship.
    • Self-Appointed Mindguards—Team members refusing to pass along to the team information that challenges its assumptions or previous decisions.[3]
  2. Discuss the findings with the team, and explain the dangers of groupthink from the “Description” section.
  3. Implement one or more of these solutions based on what you learned:
    • Ensure there is a team value encouraging respect for dissension and that it is being followed.
    • Encourage the team to bring in interested outsiders for their perspectives whenever possible.
    • Ensure the team is getting a full range of data and opinions related to its issues, and addresses information negative to its solutions.
    • Encourage the step-by-step use of techniques from this “Troubleshooting” section when addressing major issues.
    • Ask a member to serve as the team “devil’s advocate” who constantly questions all assumptions, and inform the team of his or her role.
    • Encourage the use of “second-chance” meetings, in which major decisions are not made final until time has been allowed for further reflection.
    • On decisions that require manager approval, have the manager require the team to provide more than one option for review.
    • Encourage discussion of the risks or dangers of potential solutions, including ways of reducing or dealing with those risks (see “Risk Management Plan”).
    • Suggest role-playing, in which each stakeholder of the issue is identified and team members take on the identities of these stakeholders in a discussion.
      Note: This is a good technique to use during a second-chance meeting. Choose the stakeholder proxies in the previous meeting, giving them a chance to think (or ask the stakeholders about) their presumed positions.
    • Consider moving new members onto the team, especially ones known for independent thinking.
    • Make sure team members continue their skills training, both technical and interpersonal, especially outside of the company.
    • If there is a team leader, the leader should make an effort to keep his or her opinions quiet and react neutrally in the early part of the discussion on a given issue. This will reduce any pressure felt by team members to conform to the leader’s thinking. The leader should also redouble efforts to let the team make decisions he or she does not agree with.

Troubleshooting


Full citations for the footnotes are here.

[1] Turner & Pratkanis 1998.

[2] Neck & Manz 1994.

[3] List based on Manz & Sims 1992.

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