Groupthink is a collective mindset which can develop within cohesive groups.
So what are the dangers of groupthink?
It results in a group view being established and decisions being taken without assumptions being checked. This can happen for many reasons; a lack of diversity in the group can result in a common mindset but also a conformity of thinking through fear or desire to fit in. This can lead to the group and individuals within it ignoring facts and opinions when these counter the groups’ views. The result is often poor and even disastrous decision making.
Irving Janis studied political decisions taken by cohesive committees in America and developed this framework for recognising the symptoms of groupthink.
The Symptoms of Groupthink
Janis (1982) identified eight different symptoms that indicate groupthink:
- Illusions of invulnerability – this can result in members of the group being over optimistic and can lead to higher risk-taking.
- Illusions of morality – this can lead members to believe that as moral people they are unlikely to make bad decisions.
- Collective Rationalization – prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
- Shared Stereotypes – lead members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the groups’ ideas.
- Self-censorship – causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
- Direct Pressure – to others to conform ensures that those who question the group are seen as disloyal or traitorous.
- Illusions of unanimity – lead members to believe that everyone agrees and feels the same way.
- Mind-guards – leads to members screening out disconfirming information.
Recently I came across a quote from a former head of the UK civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, when he was giving evidence into the Iraq war to UK members of parliament. He asked them ‘do you have a culture in which senior officials, ministers and external experts feel it is possible to offer an alternative view to the prevailing wisdom so to avoid groupthink?’
This seems to me to be the crucial question to ask of any organisation or team. However, it rarely is, and it seems that groupthink is often encouraged at the highest levels. Who dare question the emperor’s new clothes?
So, how do groups become so cohesive that they develop groupthink?
- Groups develop shared norms as they become cohesive and from this a group mindset can develop.
- A lack of diversity within group membership results in a lack of challenge to assumptions. Often members of an organisation are chosen because they are similar to those already there. We can see this for example in the dominance of white males in positions of power in the western world.
- Socialisation of new members of a group ensures that a new person to the group conforms to the prevailing mindset.
- Powerful leadership can result in groupthink when followers become fearful to challenge.
There are numerous examples of groupthink leading to organisations taking bad decisions, particularly in the area of strategy development. One example frequently quoted is when Marks and Spencer expanded into Europe, then had to withdraw some years later having suffered losses. Very many political decisions have resulted from groupthink. This can be seen today in actions currently being taken around the world.
Who amomgst us has not, at some stage in our careers, sat in a meeting listening to a discussion and agreement on a topic while thinking that this is not good, but failed to challenge the decision?
What can you do to avoid groupthink?
- Ensure there is diversity in the group. Stereotyping develops when the group is from the same background. Recruit for a diversity in thinking. Invite outsiders in if the group is too similar in nature.
- Allow space for individual thinking and encourage all to share their ideas.
- Establish ground rules of openness and challenge within groups. Build in processes such as regular action reviews where lessons can be learned from actions taken.
- Encourage the use of creative techniques which encourage seeing something from a different perspective.
What other actions would you recommend?
Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently published a book on creativity for leaders with Dr. Tracy Stanley, entitled Creativity Cycling .
Last month I wrote about stage 1 of the creative problem solving process (CPS). Today’s post is about the second stage, exploring options to resolve the problem.
The first part of this stage 2 is to open up to all possible approaches to resolving the problem. There are many techniques which you can use to do this, and a lot of them are based upon brainstorming.
Brainstorming is something that is much abused and I want to share with you ways in which you can improve it.
Let’s start with your experience. I am certain that you will have experienced that time when someone has suggested that you all brainstorm a topic. It might be, for example, ideas for the next marketing campaign, or ways of handling customer feedback.
So, it goes something like this –‘lets brainstorm’ -then you all get together and throw a few ideas out. One of the ideas gets picked up and a discussion follows. During this process you may not have noticed that one of the more introverted members of the team is very quiet. At the end of the 15 minutes allocated, you have a direction to move on, however is it the best? and have all members of the team felt that they have been heard? I would bet that the answer is no these questions.
Last month I wrote about the Creative Problem Solving process (CPS) and its importance in tackling complex problems. Picking up from there, I will now review the first stage of the CPS process, which is to gain an understanding of the problem. This stage consists of a divergent followed by a convergent phase as shown in the diagram here.
This is crucial because often the wrong problem is ‘solved’ if there is not enough time spent on determining the true nature of the problem.
A typical example could be the following:
You have been told that there is a problem with the productivity of a team who also have a high level of absenteeism. The team leader has assumed that the problem is to do with levels of motivation. She has asked for them to be offered an increase in pay as a solution as this team are crucial in the setting up of a new product line. After a process of fully exploring the problem, it is established that the levels of motivation are low. However this is considered to be an effect, not the cause of the problem. The cause is that the team have been recruited with a low level of competencies needed for the current tasks they are performing.
It was widely reported that in 2016 the World Economic Forum cited creativity as one of the top 3 skills organisations would need by 2020. The top skill which has been consistent in their reporting is critical problem solving.
Critical problem solving is much improved when a dose of creativity is added because many organisations get stuck in loops of thinking. The saying, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ is so true.
Creative problem solving is an approach that offers opportunities to develop both critical thinking and creative approaches to problems. The result is that better and different solutions may be identified.
Risk is a part of life: something we all live with. Some people are more comfortable with risk, others have no choice. However. I propose that for change, development, creativity and innovation, a level of healthy risk is essential.
Risk and Fear
Risk, however, can bring with it feelings of fear. As I write this I remember reading the book by Susan Jeffers, Feel the fear and do it anyway . It had a very positive effect on me at a time in my life when I was about to leave a full-time job in one country for an uncertain freelance career in another. The fear around risk is that we may fail. However, if we never take a risk, we may never live life at our best.
This fear of failure is prevalent in organisations. Failure is often punished and the consequences of this is a reluctance to start or try anything new or different. This is detrimental to creativity and innovation. As people and as organisations, without taking a risk, we cannot develop and change. To enable creativity and innovation risk is essential.
What are Assumptions?
On a daily basis we all make assumptions. Some are conscious however many of them are unconscious. Those that are unconscious have become habitual ways of thinking.
Assumptions serve a useful purpose
They provide a short cut in our thinking. For example, I assume that health professionals care about my health when I go to see them. I don’t need to think this through, although with any new practitioner I may be wary and check out my assumptions in advance by seeking feedback from others. On the other hand if I am walking down a city street at night and I hear footsteps coming up behind me I assume that I could be in danger and start to react.
What happens when we make assumptions?
We often receive self-confirming feedback. Perhaps not always in the case of the danger at night, thank goodness. However, if we assume that someone is going to act towards us in a positive way then we show this in our attitude towards them and it normally gets reciprocated. Equally if we assume someone will be hostile, our actions show this and this is also often reciprocated.
The Ladder of Inference
I have written previously about assumptions and referred to a framework called a Ladder of Inference first proposed by Chris Argyris. (more…)