Beyond Groupthink

Image:  Penn State

In the best of all worlds, we, the members of our groups bring our ideas, skills and talents together, and all of a sudden, 1 + 1 =3. That is, the collective impact of what we are able to achieve is greater than the sum of the parts that any individual brings. I have found that this is more likely to happen in groups that adhere to a strong set of core values that create an environment of mutual respect, open and honest communication, transparency and accountability.

Adherance to core values goes beyond writing them down and having them printed on organizational literature. We must make sure that all decisions and actions we take within our organizations are done within the letter and the spirit of the core values. Anything less is lipservice. The litmus test is being able to adhere to the core values when tough decisions have to be made, or when conflicts arise. All too often, we fall short, and groupthink takes control.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups or individuals within the group.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making. (Psychologists for Social Responsibility)

Groupthink can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes we, as members of organizations can observe unjust or unethical behavior and say nothing because we don’t want to be confrontational or rock the boat. Most of us have been conditioned to go along to get along. The reality is, every time we look the other way without addressing the issues, the fabric of our organizations begins to erode, dying a slow death. We may not say anything, but truth be told, we are watching very closely to see what happens next, wondering if the negative behavior is a one-time occurrence, or if this is typical.

If the negative behavior is allowed to continue, and we are not comfortable in the environment, we become less engaged, less trusting and less productive. Momentum dies, and progress is stalled. We vote with our feet and use our time and talents in more positive environments where we can grow and thrive.

It is better to address issues head on, in a constructive, transparent manner, with everyone who is impacted, and take corrective and restorative action. This is not the easiest, or most comfortable thing to do in the short run. In the long run, it may be the best way to save our organizations and right the ship.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility have provided some remedies for groupthink.

  • The leader should assign the role of critical evaluator to each member
  • The leader should avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset
  • Each member of the group should routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate and report back to the group on the associate’s reactions
  • One or more experts should be invited to each meeting on a staggered basis and encouraged to challenge views of the members.
  • At least one member should be given the role of devil’s advocate (to question assumptions and plans)
  • The leader should make sure that a sizeable block of time is set aside to survey warning signals.

I recommend that you read Psychologists for Social Responsibility’s presentation on groupthink.  They define groupthink and identify the issues and dangers of groupthink using real world examples.

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