The Dangers of Groupthink

Groupthink is a collective mindset which can develop within cohesive groups.

So what are the dangers of groupthink?

Photo by Margarida CSilva on Unsplash

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:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability – this can result in members of the group being over optimistic and can lead to higher risk-taking.
  2. Illusions of morality – this can lead members to believe that as moral people they are unlikely to make bad decisions.
  3. Collective Rationalization – prevents members from reconsidering their beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
  4. Shared Stereotypes – lead members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the groups’ ideas.
  5. Self-censorship – causes people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
  6. Direct Pressure – to others to conform ensures that those who question the group are seen as disloyal or traitorous.
  7. Illusions of unanimity – lead members to believe that everyone agrees and feels the same way.
  8. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. Allow space for individual thinking and encourage all to share their ideas.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 .