On the morning of January 28th, 1986, 9-year-old me entered my 4th-grade science class at Summit Park Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. This was a special day that my classmates and I had been waiting for in anticipation for weeks. A clunky 1980s television set was rolled in and parked at the front of the classroom so that we, along with hundreds of thousands of students nationwide could witness the live launch of the space shuttle Challenger rocket the first American schoolteacher into space. Unknowing of the significance, we were likely just as thrilled to be watching TV during the school day. Sadly, only 73 seconds after the launch, my excitement was replaced by confusion, and the image of a massive divining rod of smoke was indelibly imprinted on my memory.
The Challenger explosion was the disastrous consequence of groupthink in epic proportions. Not enough voices were heard. Not enough dissent escalated up the decision-making chain. Extreme pressure was felt from as high up as the Oval Office. No alternative solutions were presented when a problem was recognized early on.
For most of us, our workday lives aren’t filled with such crucial life or death decisions or outcomes, but the same groupthink principles that led to the Challenger disaster play out in our meetings and collaborative projects and stunt our creativity and problem-solving capabilities. Groupthink occurs when a team of intelligent, well-intentioned people makes irrational or poor decisions based on a desire to conform with and be accepted by the rest of the group. By learning to recognize and combat this phenomenon of like-mindedness, teams can develop better ideas and spark more strategic thinking through positive conflict and critical disagreement of ideas.
What does groupthink look and feel like?
To recognize its presence, keep an eye out for any of the following impacts of Groupthink:
- Lack of creativity and innovation
- Simple and feasible solutions or options being overlooked
- Overconfidence in decisions
- Bad outcomes due to lack of opposition/no checks and balances
- Insufficient feedback on decisions made
All of these consequences point to a lack of sound team decision-making that can lead to extremely negative consequences for employees and companies.
How to Avoid Groupthink Traps
1. Educate the Team
The first step for preventing groupthink is to make sure the entire team is aware of what it is, as well as how and why it can occur. Discuss how recognizing this behavior can not only benefit individuals personally but also the company. Irving Janis studied and coined the term groupthink and described the 8 symptoms as:
- Invulnerability – A shared illusion of optimism that encourages risk-taking
- Rationale – Ignoring warnings and negative feedback that should be considered
- Morality – Ignoring ethical or moral consequences of decisions
- Stereotypes – The belief that “others” are enemies
- Pressure – Negative pressure toward an individual voicing a counter-opinion
- Self-censorship – Not expressing concerns about group decisions or behavior
- The illusion of unanimity – The majority view is unanimously agreed upon
- Mind guards – Intentional avoidance of counter-opinions or presentation of information that may be contradictory to the group view or decision
Team members who are aware of groupthink become more confident and assertive in voicing their opinion, even when it runs counter to the norm. Those who speak up with new and novel ideas can benefit professionally. Companies want innovators and problem-solvers. Teammates who consistently demonstrate these skills are more likely to experience better rewards and increased job opportunities.
If a team works on projects collaboratively, avoiding groupthink becomes even more critical. Research conducted by Walden University shows that groupthink may be the primary reason why projects do not accomplish their objectives. This is likely because groupthink reduces people’s ability to execute tactical decision-making. When team members cannot effectively make tactical decisions, they struggle to meet their own professional goals and fail to support the overall project and business strategies.
2. Encourage a Devil’s Advocate
In her Ted Talk“Dare to Disagree”, business leader Margaret Heffernan retells the fascinating story of Alice Stewart, the doctor who in the 1950s discovered the cause of a significant increase in death due to childhood cancer. Dr. Stewart’s epidemiological work proved that by X-raying pregnant women, medical professionals were unintentionally causing cancer in children. Unfortunately, it took 25 years for the medical establishment to abandon the deadly practice. Doctors loved the new technology and didn’t want to hear or believe they were harming their patients.
Why was Dr. Stewart alone so convinced of her conclusion when the medical establishment refused to believe her data? Her proof was based on a model called active disconfirmation. Dr. Stewart enlisted the help of a colleague whose sole job was to “prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” Every attempt to disprove her work was instigated, and yet her data always concluded with the same outcome.
Groupthink thrives when there is no conflict, therefore its natural combatant is a healthy opposition. Add a devil’s advocate into team meeting roles whose responsibility it is to actively seek disconfirmation. This provides the necessary critical counter-perspective to prove the final outcome is the right one. The devil’s advocate is a partner and collaborator, not an antagonist, and must be free to bring up criticisms and concerns without fear of maligned feelings or reprisal. This is yet another reason why an inclusive work environment is so important.
3. Promote Diversity and Inclusivity
Today, most of us understand the significance of diversity in the workplace and know that it is a key influence to contest unilateral points of view. Different people, with different backgrounds and life experiences, will naturally approach problems from varied perspectives. It also correlates that a diverse workforce represents a company’s diverse customer population. Janet Stovall explains, not until one-third of a group is made up of minority voices will they begin to be heard. “Diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. Diversity is a numbers game. Inclusion is about impact. Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion.”
If it is not possible to make new and diverse hires in the short term, seek varied perspectives and viewpoints that you do have access to. Borrow employees from other internal teams who aren’t yet jaded or biased by the group opinion to shake up a stagnant brainstorming. Or look further and reach into other departments. Thanks to video conferencing, connecting to remote employees and teams in other offices can take place at a moment’s notice. Focus on incorporating people who are knowledgeable and unafraid to speak up. Another way to do this is to invite outside experts to share their perspectives or provide content that a team can react to. If your team is stuck, share thought leader webinars that may spark inspiration and new ideas.
4. Cultivate an Idea Meritocracy
Nothing feels more defeating than having an opinion but not trusting that it will be valued by others. Creating a psychologically safe environment where permission to speak up is not only allowed but encouraged allows for ideas to originate from all team members regardless of their rank. This is an “Idea Meritocracy”. As Edward Hess explains, an idea meritocracy exists when “the best idea is determined by the quantity and quality of the idea, not by positional power”.
Good ideas come from all employees, levels, and various lengths of career or tenure at a company. The best ideas do not necessarily come from those higher up on the hierarchical ladder.
The number one proponent of idea meritocracy is Ray Dalio, hedge fund founder, billionaire (only the 57th richest person in the world), and bestselling author of the book “Principles”. In his book, Dalio outlines business principles for organizations to adopt and qualities employees need to possess in order to create and sustain a successful business. He explains the key to his own success is “radical-openmindedness”. Leaders cannot have any ego in the game, but oppositely, must surround themselves with colleagues who are also radically open-minded and receptive to all counter points of view. Similar to Dr. Stewart’s methodology, Dalio found that only by seeking out intelligent individuals who thoughtfully disagree with him could he then fully comprehend a situation and come to the optimal solution.
5. Change the Method, Not the Message
Even within an inclusive and non-hierarchical environment, some team members may still be hesitant to speak up due to a fear of public speaking or lack of confidence in their ideas. For people struggling with speaking in front of an audience, it’s key to encourage participation. Career coaching or workplace mentorships may also help build confidence. Here are some additional tips on how to gain valuable feedback from people who are not eagerly speaking up:
- Round table Incorporate a round table approach where each person in the meeting is asked to provide their opinion. This approach also works well on conference calls, when it may be easy for less confident team members to hide behind their mute button.
- Written feedback Another approach is to ask everyone to write down their thoughts, collect, and then share aloud. This approach works well if you want to gather everyone’s opinion before they are potentially influenced by others. In virtual groups and online meetings, attendees can submit their written feedback in a private chat message to the group organizer.
- One-on-ones One-on-one meetings may take more time but can allow for a deeper dive into an associate’s defense of their opinion and a greater understanding of their thinking.
- Formalize the problem-solving process A set decision-making process can relieve the pressure of an “opinion free-for-all” and provide the structure that lets all ideas be assessed equally.
6. Manage Decision-Making Pressures
People become more susceptible to groupthink when they’re under pressure. The Challenger failure is a perfect example of this, where due to time constraints and PR pressures, groupthink took over, and lives were lost. Any severe constraints such as unrealistic timelines or threats of negative consequences can encourage groupthink. Tight deadlines can cause a team to rush to a mediocre solution or inadequate budgets can lead to cut corners with potentially negative consequences. A series of past failures can also increase pressure by causing team members to fear their job security.
One way to combat these pressures from negatively impacting the team is to find the “ideal level of stress; one that creates positive pressure in the direction of change without causing debilitating worry.” Relieve concern by incorporating some contingencies into your projects and decision-making timeframes. For example, add a 10% financial buffer into project estimates and ask for team member’s input on the timeline they think will be necessary to complete the project successfully.
No team or company is immune from the potential pitfalls or disastrous consequences of groupthink. Effectively combat it before poor choices lead to failed projects, financial losses, or unintended accidents. When team members learn how to identify groupthink, they can avoid falling prey, speak up, and proudly promote their opinions – which proves beneficial to both the individual and the company. Promoting autonomy, trust, and support creates employee confidence. If a team knows they’re appreciated, heard, and have all of the training, tools, and technology they need to do their jobs successfully, they are less likely to fall prey to pressure and groupthink. With an inclusive environment, empowered employees, and ego-free decision-makers, groupthink stays out of the room and creative solutions have a safe space to thrive.