In a nutshell: Is everyone in your organization on the same page? If it’s because people are hesitant to speak up, you’ve got a groupthink problem.

There’s an old story in the business world that provides a good place to start when considering the negative impact of groupthink.

A group of employees comes out of a meeting where every assistant and lower level employee sang the praises of an idea from the director who chaired the meeting. One employee turns to another and says: “If they had been honest in there, they would have said, “I fully support this terrible idea because you’re the one who’s saying it!”

Not a knee-slapper, but for anyone who has experienced a meeting like this (i.e., everyone) it’s worth a chuckle because it is 100% true.

And that, in a nutshell, is groupthink. It happens whenever business people gather to brainstorm ideas. Even if the directive is to approach old challenges in new ways and gather dozens of creative concepts, the entire conversation tends to coalesce around one unchallenged idea. People might be scared, shy, disinterested — whatever the reason, they simply don’t want to rock the boat.

Rather than assessing the idea on its own merits, the discussion shifts to how to implement the strategy and make it work without strong evaluation of its merit. Often this is done under both peer pressure within the group and outside pressure to meet a project deadline.

Smart management knows groupthink not a good thing. And when considering that business strategy is often the topic at hand, it can even prove dangerous to a company’s long-term financial health.

Groupthink and Psychology

For an official definition, it’s insightful to turn to Psychology Today, which states that groupthink happens when “a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.”

The term “groupthink” has its roots with social psychologist Irving Janis, who in 1972 wrote “Victims of Groupthink.” His focus was more on groupthink in society, not business, but his findings are interesting. He found that groupthink happens most often when:

  • The people involved are similar in background
  • The group is insulated from outside opinions
  • There are no clear rules for decision making

Other factors also lead to groupthink, Janis wrote. They include an “illusion of invulnerability” that leads to taking extreme risks, collective rationalization, pressure on those who dissent with the prevailing view, self-censorship to avoid such pressure and the presence of “mind guards” who don’t share information with the group that would undermine the collective view.

Avoiding Groupthink

Groupthink is such a serious issue that NASA has shared a presentation called “The Cost of Silence” on the topic. It includes how groupthink led to the O-ring failure that caused the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

NASA also offers some ways around groupthink. They include appointing people to decision-making groups who have opposing points of view and asking everyone to state their opinion before discussion is even allowed.

They also advocate realistic timetables for completion of a project based on available resources and proper risk assessment.

More specific to the business world, management resource site Mind Tools recommends a series of actions to prevent groupthink. They include:

  • Exploring alternatives
  • Encouraging the challenge of ideas without fear of reprisal
  • Proper risk assessment of the preferred choice
  • Taking time to consider information from outside sources

Diversity is also of vital importance. As pointed out by Janis, people with similar backgrounds are more susceptible to groupthink. Having a diverse set of voices in the room can help reduce the chances of groupthink.

Groupthink Consequences

As noted, officials with NASA now know they pushed ahead with the Challenger launch despite warnings about potential problems with the shuttle’s O-rings. A warning about the weather’s potential affect was also watered down. In short, everyone focused on achieving the launch rather than properly assessing risk.

Groupthink also has been associated with the collapse of Swissair, the once strong airline that went out of business in 2002. That’s partly blamed on a strategy of questionable acquisitions that too few in the organization challenged.

Perhaps the best example of groupthink is the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the United States into Cuba. Because everyone knew that President John Kennedy wanted to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, officials in the administration moved forward with that idea rather than properly assessing the risk. Which, as it turned out, was substantial.

However, Kennedy also provides an example of learning and changing, according to Psychology Today.

When Russians planned to put missiles into Cuba in 1962, Kennedy knew the stakes of his decisions. Rather than quickly move forward as he had in 1961, he sought as much information as possible and identified many different options. Kennedy also removed himself from the group considering the options, so no groupthink would form around an idea he favored.

His brother, Robert Kennedy, was tasked with being a dissenting voice, challenging any plan and questioning assumptions. The result was an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis and better relations between the United States and Russia.

That’s a lesson to remember for business leaders. Groupthink can prove dangerous to the health of a company. Avoiding it should be a priority.

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