We’ve all been there. All of us can recall an instance in which the group members we were among made a decision that didn’t completely feel right, but that we went along with because the group seemed decided. It’s a classic example of “groupthink.” Maybe we felt too intimidated to challenge the group. Maybe we nodded because it seemed easier than raising an objection. Maybe we deferred to the group, thinking, “Well, the group knows best.”
If you’ve ever swallowed your individual opinion, feeling that consensus was the nobler way to go, you may be interested to learn that groupthink carries with it the tendency toward bias that stifles creative or innovative solutions.
What Is Groupthink?
Social psychologist Irving Janis first established the insidious effects of groupthink through research he conducted in 1972, proving that there’s a psychological drive for consensus in group decisions. People often will put aside their own personal beliefs to adopt the opinion of the rest of the group.
Why? The short answer is that adopting the group opinion is a shortcut, or sorts. We tend to push reason and rational judgment aside when we make decisions. We unconsciously try to simplify complex information. This is called Groupthink Bias. But this tendency sometimes results in misinterpretation of the facts or the particular information that’s been provided. And, by failing to examine the facts ourselves, sometimes we go along with the wrong choice.
Most people in groups desire for harmony. Votes should be “unanimous.” Dissenting opinions should be muffled. In order to achieve this conformity, people will often put their own opinion aside and go along with an idea that they actually think is shoddy or unsatisfactory just because the majority of the group likes it. Another term fittingly used for this tendency is “herd mentality. ”
That said, Groupthink Bias is not all bad. When differing opinions surface, it can stymie any decision. Groupthink can move a group to beyond this roadblock to action. But the question is, is it the right action?
When Does Groupthink Bias Take Place?
Forming a quick consensus without applying adequate thought, as happens with Groupthink Bias, can have detrimental ramifications. Consider these examples with the following groups:
A few persuasive members — or even a single member — can rally others to go along with their stance regarding whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. As most juries are anxious to come to a decision so the trial will end and they can get back to their daily lives, everyone goes along with the more forceful members.
But what if some had initially viewed the evidence differently and formed another opinion? Getting caught up in Groupthink could put a criminal back on the streets — or an innocent person behind bars.
The Challenge Space Shuttle Engineers
After years spent designing and building the Challenger space shuttle, engineers who examined the shuttle a few months before it launched on January 28, 1986, realized that there were faulty parts. Instead of reporting it, they allowed the launch to proceed to avoid negative press. It exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds after lift-off, killing seven people on board.
Board of Directors
In board meetings, in which most board members prefer a unanimous vote, members with dissenting opinions may go along with the majority simply to keep the agenda moving along and on schedule. Some may even exert pressure so that no one dissents.
Later, if the decision has negative consequences, the meeting minutes will show that everyone voted in favor, so no one can be singled out and held accountable for having poor judgment.
When there is one boss or key decision-maker who has a strong opinion, it is easier (and safer!) for her underlings to nod and say “yes,” regardless of their own understanding of the advertising campaign. Revenue can be lost and the quarter may be lackluster as a result.
Medical Research Teams
Groupthink Bias could have a detrimental effect if medical researchers chose to overlook critical data that points to less than favorable results. In particular, pharmaceutical companies who try to demonstrate that a drug is both safe and effective are pressured to bring the drug to market as quickly as possible to turn the product into profit.
Uncovering Evidence of Groupthink
Groupthink is mostly likely to play out in situations where there is a time crunch, a cost factor, or a power differential, as people are more inclined to want to keep the peace than to offer up opposing opinions or evidence. They will defer to the group to skirt circumstances in which speaking up could pose a real threat to their own livelihood and the group’s credibility.
We humans as social animals, tend to want to conform to the group, and therefore disregard (or fail to share) doubts so that we don’t stand apart from the group’s unity. Further, we don’t want the objection we share to make others treat us as an outcast. For this reason, Groupthink more often comes into play among more bonded groups.
The Results of Groupthink
In these times when we face so many seemingly insurmountable problems, we need inventive ideas and solutions more than ever. Yet with Groupthink guiding our problem-solving discussions, causing group members to self-censor or to go along with the most expedient resolution, we don’t allow our best thinking to take root.
The costs of Groupthink in terms of dampening new and original — not to mention accurate — thinking lead to mediocrity and poor problem-solving. Essential information is ignored in deference to consensus. Further, genuinely helpful solutions may not be considered because they provoke resistance.
Additionally, Groupthink often promotes the status quo rather than allowing and incorporating diverse and divergent points of view. Sidelining the perspectives of those who tend to be marginalized only perpetuates old assumptions and outmoded ways of thinking.
A damaging aspect to Groupthink Bias is that we allow ourselves to get swept up in whichever way the group is tending and lose confidence in our own ideas. At its worst, Groupthink allows us to be mentally lazy. We behave like brainless zombies, feeble at devoting thought to our deeds.
How to Avoid Groupthink
Work to combat Groupthink to invite more productive discussions. Use these tips to allow new ideas to surface and to improve decision-making.
1. Ask someone to play the role of devil’s advocate.
Especially if you have a person who often acts as an outspoken dissenter, make sure to give this group member’s ideas consideration. Or, take turns playing the role so that the group gives ample time to time to air any objections or alternatives.
2. Ensure feedback from more introverted members.
If the more vocal members — or an assertive leader — of the group tend to dominate the discussion, introduce a ground rule that enables the more reticent members of the group to voice their own ideas. This may take some tact, especially if it’s in response to a forceful leader who prefers to pontificate than to yield the floor. In this case, make the suggestion in private.
3. Build in rebuttal time before finalizing big decisions.
Before any monumental decisions, schedule a review meeting. Allow group members time to digest what they’ve heard and provide the opportunity to express any new or remaining doubts. Resist the temptation to squelch challenges to the dominant opinion.
4. Survey members before the group meeting.
Use a survey program, such as Survey Monkey, to get a sense of where members stand before meeting. Attempt to provide alternative choices, offer ranges of agreement or disagreement (opposed to yes or no) to gauge level of alignment, and allow for questions and comments. Publicize the responses to the group and use the results to start your discussion.
5. Consider inviting outside experts
Reach out to a retired member of your company who no longer holds allegiances but has suitable technical knowledge. Ask the expert to sit in on a discussion and then to provide feedback on the ideas expressed.
An impartial observer will be better positioned to poke holes in solutions arrived at through Groupthink rather than based on fundamental information and fact.
The Bottom Line
Society places emphasis on collegiality, but when the stakes are high, it’s better to think without mental shackles.
Speak up if you have a valid point or different perspective. When you offer thoughtful opinions, it doesn’t mean that you’re disrespectful of others’ positions, but that you care that the best, most creative, and thoughtfully considered ideas are those that are put into action.
Featured photo credit: TienDat Nguyen via unsplash.com
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