Have you ever wondered how groups of very smart people can make really bad decisions? Maybe you’ve even been in a meeting at work and for some reason couldn’t bring up an obvious flaw with a unanimous decision, so went along with it.
The issue you’re looking at is groupthink. It’s a problem that’s been around forever, but a little knowledge can make it a thing of the past.
What is groupthink?
When your team at work makes a questionable but unanimous decision—with no dissenting views ever truly considered or discussed—you’ve got a case of groupthink.
Groupthink doesn’t only occur in businesses, of course. The lack of critical thinking inherent when a group’s sole focus is unanimity is seen in calamitous government decisions too, such as Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbor, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
In their book Applying Communication Theory for Professional Life, professors Marianne Dainton and Elaine D. Zelley write that groupthink (a term coined by research psychologist Iriving Lester Janis in the 1970s) “was designed to explain and predict how bad decisions are made by groups.”
“When groups ‘go along to get along,’ the end result of the decision-making process is likely to be less effective than if group members question the information at hand, being careful to look at the problem from a variety of perspectives,” they explain.
Groupthink often occurs when the team is under enormous pressure to act. Once a decision is reached, it’s very difficult for individual members to object. The fallacy is that when everyone in the room agrees, the decision must be correct.
What causes groupthink?
We asked Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, board director, C-suite advisor, and leadership strategist, for her thoughts on what causes groupthink in the workplace. The most common reasons she sees in her work are:
The belief that the leader is almost always right and therefore, the employees rarely question thinking or decisions. Even if in their own mind they are questioning, they rationalize that the leader is probably right and “get on board” instead of digging in and questioning.
The desire to be liked and to avoid conflict. In this case, the decision to not question is a conscious one. Perhaps they believe that “the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.”
An underlying bias/belief system that is strong and actually prohibits the individuals from thinking beyond what has been taught.
Groups that are similar in makeup tend to be more at risk of groupthink, and the stronger that group identity, the more likely the team is to engage in groupthink.
The fact that we’re social creatures plays a large part too. Psychologist Amy Silver puts it this way: “We don’t want to be unpopular: We all want to be accepted but this can push us into situations where we agree purely to belong. It can lead to groupthink and create a culture where it is hard to have conversations about accountability or disappointments.”
How to recognize groupthink
If you think your workplace is subject to groupthink, there are certain characteristics you can look for. These include:
Illusions of invulnerability and an inability to be wrong. Combined with a sense of optimism, these beliefs can lead a group into taking unreasonable risks and making irrational decisions.
The group is believed to be always right, which allows ethical or moral questions to be ignored. Decisions are rationalized on this basis.
The group views anyone with a difference of opinion as suspect, and pressures them to succumb to the view of the majority. Because of this, self-censorship often occurs, with group members not expressing their true opinions.
Teams affected by groupthink tend to be large. It’s harder to be the only dissenting voice in a large group than to disagree with a couple of colleagues. Large teams also provide a sense of safety for the majority to agree, even when some of those members seemingly in agreement may privately have doubts.
How can groupthink affect a business?
The consequences of groupthink for business can be serious.
One case study of groupthink consequences in business is Kodak. The former leader in camera technology, Kodak collapsed with the introduction of digital cameras. The company maintained its stance that analog photography was superior to digital. Company leadership saw the organization as invulnerable and refused to adapt, resulting in it ultimately filing for bankruptcy protection in 2012. Since rebranded as Eastman Kodak Company, it’s become a global manufacturer focused on commercial print and advanced materials and chemicals.
Companies that operate on a groupthink basis lose out in many ways. They might fail to spot opportunities, back unsuccessful products, and pursue competitive strategies that are outdated and completely ineffective.
When a company moves forward on a decision that is not fully informed, negative results can occur immediately after the move is implemented and made public. Any back-pedaling or change of position becomes exponentially more difficult once it’s become a matter of public scrutiny.
For example, when Stefan Cohen launched Bain Capital Crypto, he introduced the team, a seven-member all-male group. The blatant lack of diversity was made worse by the date: Cohen issued his statement on International Women's Day. The backlash was immediate, with lawyer Ed Zimmerman writing: “How many [limited partners] diligenced the fund, tooled through the data room, saw 7 dudes & didn’t blink, but instead said ‘yes, this is the team’ & then piled in w/ $560M of fresh capital?”
In this case, the lack of diversity most likely evident in the partners that chose the all-male group replicated itself unthinkingly. Groupthink not only stifles innovation, but it encourages the status quo and creates blind spots—which are glaringly obvious to just about everyone else.
Group identity and similar ideas can be positive, allowing innovation and collaboration to take place. It’s when these groups become completely homogenous in their backgrounds and ways of thinking that they are at risk of groupthink.
The impact of groupthink on diversity, equity, and inclusion
Groupthink does not allow for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). DEI, on the other hand, defeats groupthink.
And DEI is good for business. A survey by McKinsey & Co. found that companies with gender and ethnic diversity saw greater financial performance than those with the least diversity. There’s a proviso, though: The researchers say it’s not enough to hire diverse talent if the workplace experience is poor.
Sir Jeremy Fleming, the director of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s intelligence and security organization, goes so far as to say diversity wins wars. He points to the GCHQ’s beginnings at Bletchley Park, where Germany’s World War II cipher code was broken. That success relied on “bringing together diverse people to meet the toughest intellectual challenges. It is impossible to solve complex problems when you have one mind, or one perspective, or one point of view.”
Just including one person who is different from the majority of the team can be helpful, and they don’t even have to say a word.
For instance, if the techs that made automatic soap dispenser detectors had one person of color in their group, they may have found out that the dispensers were unable to detect darker skin tones before releasing the product and enraging the public. Unfortunately, says Alex Harris, a manufacturing engineer and fundraising chair for the National Society of Black Engineers, the tech industry is rife with a lack of diversity.
“If you have an office full of white people, whatever products that come out of that office are more likely to be geared more toward white people,” Harris explains. “The less diversity there is in a workplace environment, the more likely major design flaws will be present that only affect people of color.”
Technology executive Tyrone Grandison points out that it’s not the tech per se. "When you talk about the fact that hand sanitizers can't recognize dark skin, or the fact that up until a few years ago, most image recognition software were identifying Black people as monkeys, that's not a fault of the tech, that's the fault of the training data that people are actually using to kind of inform these algorithms."
3 ways to overcome groupthink at work
It’s relatively simple to rid your workplace of groupthink, but to do so successfully, the approach needs buy-in from everyone, and it starts with hiring.
1. Change how you hire.
For example, go beyond traditional sources and schools when you’re looking to fill a position. You can help diversify the responses you get to job ads by rewriting them, using inclusive language. You can incorporate anonymizing and intelligent shortlisting software to offset unconscious bias.
Remember to include neurodivergent people in your diversity hiring efforts. They are “described as being nonconformists,” writes neurodiversity advocate Jillian Enright, so are “much less likely to be caught up in groupthink and more likely to remain firm in [their] beliefs, even when they do not align with popular opinion.”
The bottom line here is that you’re looking for a cultural contribution, not a culture fit.
2. Educate employees
Hagemann says “all employees should be taught critical thinking skills both formally and informally. These skills will teach them to have healthy debate, to question not only others and their thinking but to also question their own. There is a process called metacognition which is where individuals learn to think about their thinking and push the boundaries of their traditional thought.”
The training is important, she adds, so that debates are not for the sake of argument, but with a purpose and helpful (not rigid) attitude. “In the case where the underlying belief systems are creating a bias that the individual may not be aware of, DEI training is helpful, along with exposure to different people, mindsets, religions, political opinions, etc.”
And when you’ve got a group or team meeting taking place, add one person to serve as the devil’s advocate. This person should be an outsider and actively encouraged to dissent.
3. Build trust.
Create trust by encouraging interaction between employees. This builds relationships, which Nancy Baym, Ph.D., senior principal research manager at Microsoft, calls social capital. “Social capital has to do with the resources and opportunities you have access to because of your relationships,” she explains. “When people trust one another and have that kind of capital, you get a willingness to take risks, you get more innovation and creativity and less groupthink.”
Banish fear from voicing opposing opinions, and you’ll destroy groupthink, says Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson. “Psychological safety is a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking – that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”
When your company culture moves to one of innovation, trust and psychological safety—and is supported by leadership—groupthink will be a thing of the past.
About our source
Visionary leadership expert Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of EDA, Inc., a top-of-the house human capital firm specializing in C-Suite Coaching, Succession Planning, Design of Custom Executive Development programs and preparing high potentials to step into senior leadership roles. EDA has a 38-year history of working with leading organizations to develop their executives and make culture visible through their proprietary CultureTech platform called EDASurveys®.
Hagemann’s personal leadership journey, combined with sound business principles and expertise in leadership strategy, has led her to serve as a speaker, coach, and trusted advisor to some of the most respected leaders and organizations in the world. Co-author of Leading with Vision: The Leader's Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce, Hagemann has leadership courses on LinkedIn Learning.