Going against the tide: Avoiding groupthink

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Groupthink occurs when tight-knit groups value group agreement over high quality decisions. Groupthink is closely linked to conformity but the concept goes beyond it. Individuals are often under strong social pressure from leaders to accept business decisions that are clearly detrimental for the organization. Groupthink is a situation where group pressure for conformity deters the group from critically evaluating unusual, unpopular or minority views.

There is a tendency for highly cohesive groups to value consensus at the price of decision quality, by avoiding conflict and withholding their dissenting opinions. Team members often maintain this harmony because their own self-identity is strongly connected to the membership of the decision-making group.

Major historical events have been traced back to the concept of groupthink. These include the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and Pearl Harbour. However, groupthink is prevalent in organizations today and has resulted in major decisions being made on the basis extreme conformity, such as the infamous Enron and WorldCom.

Leadership development
"You know what makes leadership? It is the ability to get men to do what they don't want to do and like it" - Harry S. Truman (Former US President, 1945-1953). The type of leader needed in decision making situations is one who can encourage a diverse range of opinions and be able to view a situation from a number of different perspectives.

While many leaders pride themselves on their independence, research has consistently demonstrated that most people, including leaders, prefer conformity to controversy. On that principle, it is hardly surprising that the ethical and capable individuals who served on the boards of companies like WorldCom and Enron turned into criticism-sensitive, compliant apparatchiks, more focused on maintaining collegiality and failing to challenge flawed and corrupt decisions and directions. Research demonstrates that by using social proof to determine behaviour leads us to make fewer mistakes than by opposing the majority view.

The majority can, of course, be drastically wrong. Expert opinion individuals very often follow the crowd. This is due to being 'cognitive misers' thereby preferring the cognitive shortcuts of automatic thinking over considered analysis of the situation. These mental shortcuts can help decision makers to process information more quickly but can also lead them to make monumental errors as not all dynamics are considered.

The question arises of how to negate or at least minimize groupthink in decision making within an organization. After research into groupthink, here are some strategies for leaders and decision makers to follow in order to avoid the pitfalls of over conformity at the executive table.

Organization-wide methods to counteract groupthink

Adhering to the following strategies may help to mitigate groupthink hijacking business decisions:

  1. Keep vision of the decision and situation clear. It is much easier to get sidetracked when you are unclear about what the main track is.
  2. Encourage people to disagree. Most people form opinions too quickly and give them up too slowly.
  3. Cultivate 'Insultants'. Find people in your organization that you can trust to tell you what you need to hear, no matter how unpopular or unpalatable that is.
  4. Make sure that your actions as a leader reflect what you want to happen in your organization. Followers reflect the behaviour of their leaders, rather than their spoken word
  5. Honour your intuition. If a decision maker thinks that they is being manipulated, then that is probably the case.
  6. Delegate, do not abrogate. It is important to share control and to empower your managers. However, it is important to remember who is ultimately responsible for the outcome. As is often stated in politics, trust but verify.
  7. Bring in a consultant who has specialized knowledge in the area that you are deciding on. A good consultant will present perspectives which may not be apparent to your team and may well prompt those who do have doubts to voice their concern.
  8. Finally, another way to identify risks in the decision is to use the Delphi Method. Within each group, feedback is taken from individual members and presented back to the group anonymously. Group members can then modify their opinions in the light of other member's opinions. This process is repeated until no changes are made by the group. By using this anonymous feedback, feedback and individual opinions, the decision making group has the opportunity to view group thinking - seeing things holistically and from everyone's point of view - and avoid groupthink.

Further information
For more information on Groupthink or extreme conformity in decision making occurring within your organization, contact Des Tubridy on 0411 116 367 or dest@qmisurveys.com.au

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