How High are the Costs of Groupthink in the Workplace?

What do these events have in common?

  • The Challenger space shuttle explosion.

  • The Bay of Pigs invasion.

  • The Korean War debacle.

  • The failure to prepare during the run up to World War Two.

  • Watergate.

They are all examples of Groupthink, a type of behavior exhibited by members of a cohesive in-group, where members strive for unanimity at the expense of critical, realistic evaluation. Members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without analyzing and seriously evaluating alternatives.. Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and are under considerable pressure to make a high value decision.

Groups are useful and necessary in many situations. They can accomplish things that any one individual cannot. Groupthink can have destructive consequences. When Groupthink occurs group members avoid promoting viewpoints outside the parameters of perceived consensus. Groupthink can cause groups to make rushed, irrational decisions. Groupthink leads to bad judgments, poor decision making, and the absence of creative alternatives.

Blindfolded Group Searching for Answers

The term Groupthink was coined by Irving Janis a research psychologist at Yale University, in his book, Victims Of Groupthink; A Psychological Study Of Foreign-Policy Decisions And Fiascoes, which described the systematic errors made by groups when taking collective decisions. Janis posited the following 8 symptoms as indicative of Groupthink.

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.

  2. Rationalising warnings that might challenge the group's assumptions.

  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.

  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.

  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of "disloyalty".

  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.

  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.

  8. Mindguards - self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Conditions Conducive to Groupthink include:

  • A highly cohesive group.
  • Group isolation from opposing opinions.
  • A strong leader who promotes his or her preferred solution.

Negative Outcomes Include:

  • Avoiding outside expert opinion

  • Examining few alternatives

  • Failing to critically examine one another's ideas
  • Having no contingency plan

  • Ignoring early alternatives

  • Lack of creative options

  • Practicing high selectivity in gathering information

Preventative Measures for Averting Groupthink

  • Appoint one member the "Devil's Advocate" with the express mandate to question all proposed ideas and rotate this task among group members

  • Expect leader to encourage an environment of open inquiry.

  • Have two sub-groups work independently on the same critical issue and report back.

  • Include an operating ground rule that objections and unpopular alternatives must be given a hearing.

  • Insist the leader remain impartial

  • Oblige group member to discuss tentative decisions with trusted, outside colleagues not in the group.

  • Raise awareness by educating the group about the causes and consequences of Groupthink.

  • Require that higher ups not express an opinion or preference when assigning the group its task

  • Use one or more sub-groups, e.g. a policy-forming group for different tasks which report to the larger group

  • Use outside experts

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