We all know that teamwork and cohesion are useful in a team or work environment. But when taken too far, at times groupthink can evolve and have negative consequences (Gokar,2013).
Groupthink occurs when people override their common sense desire to present alternatives, critique positions, or express unpopular opinions. It is common for team members suffering from groupthink to make poor decisions and to overlook possible pitfalls, which can lead to disastrous consequences for the company. A working definition used in Psychology Today is “Groupthink occurs when a group of well-intentioned people make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or the discouragement of dissent.”
This term originated with Irving Janis in his classic 1971 paper on how group decision-making led to historic U.S. foreign policy blunders.
In examining how group behaviour, biases, and pressures influence group decisions, Janis sought to explain why highly intelligent groups often made bad decisions. There is widespread acceptance of group think in many fields, such as social psychology, organisational theory, and group decision-making sciences.
According to Janis, groupthink is caused by a number of structural factors, including the cohesiveness of a decision-making group, its formal rules, its leadership, the social homogeneity of its members, and their context or situation. He went to explain the impact on decision making :
“The advantages of having decisions made by groups are often lost because of powerful psychological pressures that arise when the members work closely together, share the same set of values and, above all, face a crisis situation that puts everyone under intense stress.” (1972)
The signs of groupthink are not always obvious, especially in a cohesive team that is used to working together. However groupthink can be characterised by the following signs and symptoms:
- Members of a team tend to come from similar social backgrounds
- A closed environment surrounds the team
- This organisation lacks a robust way to evaluate a range of ideas and thoughts
- Favouritism is displayed by leaders
- There is a preference for conformity over diversity of ideas and free expression in groups
As a result of groupthink, decisions are made ignoring possible alternatives and focusing on a narrow number of goals, ignoring risks associated with a particular course of action. Alternative information is not sought or the available information is considered in a biased manner. As soon as alternative solutions are rejected, contingency plans are neglected, and alternatives are forgotten.
According to Janis, groupthink is most prevalent in the following conditions:
- Whenever there is a high level of cohesiveness
- Situational factors (such as external threats, moral problems, difficult decisions) that may lead people to defer to the group.
- When there are structural issues (such as group isolation and a lack of impartial leadership)
How to avoid Groupthink and Conformity in the Workplace
Groupthink can lead to people ignoring important information, resulting in poor decisions. A situation like this can be damaging even in minor situations, but in certain circumstances it can have far more dire consequences. Therefore it is beneficial to identify groupthink and be aware of measures that can limit its affects.
As a means of preventing groupthink, proposals have included introducing multiple channels for dissent in decision making and mechanisms for maintaining the openness and heterogeneity of a group (Bang and Frith, 2017). Where possible slowing down the decision making process can help, by critically evaluating ideas, and including as many levels and layers as possible, in the decision making process. Engaging external advice can help as well as informed leadership that encourages open feedback and creates an environment where all voices are heard equally. Encourage open feedback and an environment where all voices matter is required in order to prevent groupthink.
Bang D, Frith CD. Making better decisions in groups. R Soc Open Sci. 2017;4(8):170193. doi:10.1098/rsos.170193
Gokar H. Groupthink principles and fundamentals in organizations. Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business. 2013;5(8):225-240.
Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink among policy makers
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. 1972.
Janis, I. L. (1973). Groupthink and group dynamics: A social psychological analysis of defective policy decisions. Policy Studies Journal, 2(1), 19.