Why Groupthink can limit Creativity

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Andre Walton discussed the issue of individual versus group creativity and how groups to some extent limited the level of creativity. This sparked my interest and prompted me to revisit a phenomenon called Groupthink.

Groupthink is a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group. It leads to people being unwilling to challenge the group view to the extent that they ignore facts and opinions when these counter the groups’ views. It was originally identified by Irving Janis who studied political decisions  which were taken by cohesive committees in America. These decisions can also lead to the taking of riskier decisions than individuals would take by themselves.

The Symptoms of Groupthink

Janis (1982) identified eight different “symptoms” that indicate groupthink:

  1. Illusions of invulnerabilitylead members of the group to be overly optimistic and engage in risk-taking.
  2. Illusions of moralitylead 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 Stereotypeslead members of the in-group to ignore or even demonize out-group members who may oppose or challenge the groups’ ideas.
  5. Self-censorshipcauses people who might have doubts to hide their fears or misgivings.
  6. Direct Pressureto others to conform ensures that those who question the group are seen as disloyal or traitorous.
  7. Illusions of unanimitylead members to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way.
  8. Mind-guardsmembers who screen out disconfirming information.

As I wrote these points I could think of so many examples from my own experience as well as public life and it certainly seems to suggest that groupthink stifles creativity. so what can be done to avoid or challenge groupthink?

The most important is to establish ground rules for working creatively and reflecting in advance around the conditions for creativity.

Here are my proposals for working to avoid groupthink:

  • When brainstorming ensure that there is not a powerful leader in the group. Groupthink often arises when leaders are powerful. If you are working with a leader who could influence brainstorming, contract with them in advance to ‘sit back’ and let the group freely come up with ideas, or even step out of the group.
  • Ensure diversity in the group. Stereotyping develops when the group is all of the same background. Invite outsiders in if the group is too similar in nature.
  • Allow space for individual thinking and encourage all to share their idea
  • Establish ground rules of openness and challenge.
  • Encourage the use of creative techniques which encourage seeing something for a different perspective.

What would you add to this list?

Barbara is a change and creativity facilitator and coach who works with organisations and individuals to enable them to change through the use of creative processes.

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