What is Groupthink?

November 1, 2022 | Maureen Frank

Groupthink occurs when members of the group agree with each other in their setting in order to reach a harmonious consensus. As a result, decision making is often impaired because individual thoughts, ideas, and opinions are not contributed – or if they are, they are not considered – in favour of a cohesive outcome. 

People’s ability to make good decisions in a group setting becomes diminished due to the pressures felt by the group.  

Groupthink origins 

Coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, groupthink was a label Janis used to describe what happens in a group setting when people strive for consensus by minimising conflict, nor sufficiently testing, analysing or evaluating their ideas. 

Through his research, Janis surmised that pressures for conformity restrict the thinking of the group, bias its analysis, promote simplistic and stereotyped thinking, and stifle creative and independent thinking. 

Characteristics of groupthink 

Through his research, Janis identified 8 things that occur within groups suffering from groupthink.

Let’s look at what the characteristics of groupthink are in more detail:

1. Direct pressure on dissenters

An in-group and an out-group are formed when groupthink occurs. The in-group agrees with the decisions and directions, while the out-group does not. When this happens the in-group often puts direct pressure on the out-group to conform or they are viewed as dissenters or disloyal. 

2. Illusion of invulnerability

In-group members often feel overconfident as a result of lack of questioning, which leads them to take greater risks around decision making. 

3. Illusion of unanimity

When there is a lack of questions or alternate opinions, group members view this as a sign that everyone is unanimous in their agreement. This can make it harder for others to offer dissenting viewpoints or opinions. 

4. Mindguards

Group leaders are shielded by self-appointed gatekeepers who keep out different opinions or outside influences that could negatively impact the group identity. 

5. Collective rationalisation

When a group is in the throes of groupthink they dismiss outside information, warnings, or criticisms because this would result in the need to dive deeper or reconsider their opinions. 

6. Self-censorship

When members start to repress their own ideas or opinions that put them at adds with the group, or even doubt their own thoughts and beliefs, they are experiencing self-censorship 

7. Stereotyped views of out-group

In-group members have been known to argue with, verbally abuse, or attack out-group members for their dissent. Negative biases occur. 

8. Belief in inherent morality

Defective decision making occurs when the in-groups unwavering belief in their own inherent morality and ethical correctness takes over. The group often disregards any consequences of their actions. 

Why is groupthink limiting? 

A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when:

  • Its members are similar in background;
  • The group is insulated from outside opinions; and
  • There are no clear rules for decision making. 

When pressures for unanimity seem overwhelming, members are less motivated to realistically appraise the alternative courses of action available to them. 

Groupthink ensures you are getting the most popular, low-quality ideas implemented as a standard practice in your organisation.  

The best idea isn’t always the most popular, and the quick decisions aren’t always the best solutions that address the need or solve the problem. 

In fact, decisions shaped by groupthink have low probability of achieving successful outcomes. 

What does groupthink look like in a workplace setting? 

Here is what we often see in a workplace that suffers from groupthink: 

  • Low innovation and creativity 
  • People do not feel safe to speak up or share their ideas or opinions 
  • Conforming is valued more than making good decisions or problem solving 
  • The bigger voices are always the ones who are heard, shutting down those who aren’t given a voice 
  • Maintaining the status quo simply to achieve group cohesion and avoid confrontation 

If there is groupthink around you in your workplace you might hear people say “this is the way we do things around here” when you raise a new idea to pressure you to conform. 

People have been known to actively defend and justify why your individual idea or opinion won’t work and you keep getting shut down. Position power or influence is used to keep things as they are. 

You might see or experience managers and leaders inviting the same people to key meetings in order to keep things running the same way they always have been. 

When “the same” is valued, we often don’t hear about or seek our new and innovative ways of growing, solving problems, or making decisions. 

It’s clear that this could have detrimental impacts on an organisation. So how do we eliminate groupthink when we see it happening? 

The solution to groupthink 

Inclusion is the key to solving the problem of groupthink. 

This lies in leaders overtly indicating their willingness and desire to hear unique ideas, thoughts, and opinions. 

Leaders need to get courageously curious about their teams and the processes followed to reach decisions. If they are inquisitive, they are more likely to learn. 

Group leaders can encourage disclosure and sharing of information – even if it doesn’t align with the group’s thinking or direction – in order to significantly reduce the characteristics of groupthink. 

If groupthink is happening right now in your organisation then reducing it will take effort and time, however the size of the prize will be big. 

There isn’t a quick band-aid solution but there is a change to the ways of working and leading that will help to reduce groupthink. 

Inclusive leadership reduces groupthink 

When leaders learn the ‘how’ of increasing inclusivity, they will see that changing their human interactions with their work colleagues can have massive implications for groupthink. 

Being inclusive of all, means valuing the difference we bring to the table and recognising that we all deserve to have a voice and feel safe and secure in raising our ideas. And consciously acting on this in our micro-actions

It means we support our colleagues to be courageous in their thinking and we actively listen and take on and implement suggestions. 

We can’t just tell our teams to “be innovative”, we need to create a culture that supports wild ideas and encourages outside of the box thinking. 

We all deserve to work for an organisation that values our uniqueness and encourages our participation. It can start by: 

  1. Building diverse teams 
  1. Intentionally structuring meetings 
  1. Engaging outsiders 
  1. Seeking unfiltered input 
  1. Encouraging constructive conflict 

Embed habits to support your leaders to be more inclusive with our inclusion habits program for leaders. 

Apply here. 

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