How to Avoid the Perils of Groupthink

March 3, 2016 7:09 pm

Irving Janis pioneered the initial research on the groupthink theory though originally coined by William H. Whyte, Jr. in 1952, Fortune magazine. He quotes:

“I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”

Concurrence seeking is a natural tendency that we all, as human beings seek out. Let’s face it, who really wants to be seen as the lone wolf speaking out against what appears to be the ‘collective decision’ of our business team or group of friends? Nevertheless, research on groupthink suggests that not having independent critical voices in the group can hinder the group’s ability to make quality decisions. As facilitators, we want our teams or groups to avoid falling into this abyss that offers little chance for them to make effective, rational decisions based on solid evidence and transparency.

The interesting thing about groupthink is that it tends to occur in a vacuum where explicit rules of engagement or norms have never really been defined but only ‘imagined’. To avoid this there are some simple steps we need to take that include but are not limited to:

    1. Presenting and discussing the notion of ‘groupthink’ with the team (check out some of the free videos on the Internet). This could be followed by asking questions like “What could groupthink look like on a team? Is it possible that at times we might or could demonstrate groupthink? Is it important for us to minimize the possibility of us falling into this rut? What actions could we do to proactively avoid groupthink, should we fall into it?”
    2.  If the group has difficulty coming up with actions then conduct a norm setting discussion where you’ll ask these questions:
      1. What are some unspoken assumptions that we hold onto as a group and may negatively impact our ability to make good decisions?”
        1. Have members write their ideas down on post-its or index cards and throw them in to a box.
        2. Mix up the cards and redistribute them to each member in the group.
        3. Going round-robin have each member read out one assumption. Record these on a flipchart and continue going around the room until all assumptions have been captured
      2. Ask the group “Is it possible that some of these assumptions might limit this team’s ability to make really good decisions that are well thought out and based on good sound data?
      3. If the group agrees that their assumptions may limit their ability to engage in good decision-making, then ask them “What rules or principles do we want to put in place that will essentially guide our decision-making discussions so that individual ideas are heard and clarified even when they appear to go against our group assumptions?”
        1. Have everyone individually write down at least one idea
        2. Break the group into pairs (if more then 3 people). Have the pairs discuss their ideas and agree on at least 1 idea to present to the larger group
      4. Conduct a large group debrief by having one person per pair report out their top idea. Ensure no ideas are critiqued or eliminated at this point
      5. Once the group has concluded the sharing ask them, “Out of all of these ideas, which one(s) appear to be quick to do and has the best chance of eliminating the possibility of groupthink?”
          1. Allow the group to discuss which one(s) are low effort but high impact. Narrow the list down to the 1 to 3 ideas.  Determine with the group if all resulting ideas can be implemented at the same time or if there is a sequence.
          2. Once the final list and sequence is determined, test the group for agreement by asking, “Based on the final list here, is there anyone who can’t live with it?” Depending on the feedback, you may have to tweak some of the ideas.

During the ‘forming’ stage of teams, the development of guidelines or norms for avoiding groupthink are critical for minimizing poor decision-making. Even if the team has formed, the above process is helpful in retuning the team and ensuring they’re all thinking of how to improve their decision-making ability.

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