Monday Mornings with Madison

The Problem with Groupthink in Business, Part 2

Word Count: 1,242
Estimated Read Time: 5 min.

All of Us Are Not Always Smarter Than One of Us

According to Paul Gibbons in his book The Science of Successful Organizational Change:  How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behavior and Create an Agile Culture, “All of us are not always smarter than one of us.  Leaders need to distinguish between the wisdom of crowds and the madness of crowds.”  Gibbons was warning business owners and managers of the dangers of Groupthink.

A term coined by social psychologist Irving L. Janis in 1972, Groupthink is the tendency for groups to make decisions that preserve the status quo rather than take into account dissenting opinions.  The reason Gibbons warned leaders of this is that Groupthink stifles innovation and makes employees feel pressured to conform.  It kills business ingenuity and diversification.  And yet it is pervasive in many organizations.

Why?  There are a multitude of ways in which the employee mindset can be led into Groupthink. For example:

  1. Leaders are seen as never erring.
  2. A group invests itself with special talents and powers, ignoring new ideas.
  3. Leaders suppress dissent to bolster their ego or micromanage staff.
  4. Seeking validation from leaders, workers will fall in line behind them.

So, how are company leaders supposed to prevent Groupthink while still encouraging a positive and cohesive work environment where everyone gets along?

How Does a Company Prevent Groupthink?

One way to prevent Groupthink is by being open to different ideas, minds and voices.  Embracing diverse thoughts is the only way to avoid the Groupthink trap.  Disagreements prompted by diverse ideas is the engine that drives a healthy decision-making process and creativity.  Welcoming differences and the ability to respectfully disagree helps prevent Groupthink.

But, the best way for leaders to prevent Groupthink within an organization is to strive for inclusion, not assimilation. What’s the difference?  Assimilation compromises an organization’s efforts to achieve true engagement and inclusion.  Some degree of assimilation is necessary for groups to function.  But when people become assimilated to a group, they start to feel like and act like insiders.  This often causes them to suppress their uniqueness and conform to the group’s norms.  That is how the military gets soldiers to follow orders, march in lock-step with their platoons and suppress their individuality.  That works really well for the military establishment, which thrives on order, structure and hierarchy.

However, for modern businesses trying to keep pace with a disruptive, noisy and competitive marketplace, inclusion is better than assimilation.  In an inclusive organization, members feel they belong to the group but are welcome to retain their differences, unique viewpoints and ideas.  To avoid Groupthink, it is vital for leadership and management to be intentionally inclusive.  When a leader fails to intentionally include, he unintentionally excludes.


Creating an Inclusive and Open Workplace where All Contributions are Valued


To foster inclusion, leaders must question unspoken rules.  Many organizations’ stated values conflict with their tacit beliefs. For example, a firm might claim to value work-life balance. But, if employees worry they’ll be seen as underachievers if they leave work before 7 p.m., work-life balance will remain elusive.  As another example, an organization might claim to value diverse ideas.  However, if all the people invited to brainstorming meetings look and think the same or are unwilling to share their thoughts without inhibition, the ideas generated will likely tend to be one-dimensional and diversity of voice will not be achieved.


Here are questions to uncover a team’s unspoken rules:

  • Are employees valued based on their work or on how well they fit in?
  • Is it safe to be unpopular or a contrarian?
  • Are ideas and opinions sought from people throughout the organization or only from select individuals?
  • Is there a penalty for candor?
  • Are there things that are simply not discussed?


Groupthink can happen inadvertently and without employees even realize they are doing it.  So, here are some other ways that a company can extract unique thinking and allow individual thought.

  1. If it is creativity a company is after, employees should be asked to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas with the group.
  2. To obtain the wisdom of a department or division, the information should be gathered electronically, or in writing, and ensure the employees on the team cannot see each other’s ideas until everyone has had a chance to contribute.  The more that individual thought is elicited before it can be tainted by Groupthink, the more likely an organization will be to tap into individual creativity.
  3. In meetings, rather than focusing on information that is already known, start by asking questions that drill down on what is not known.  A good opening question is “What is the problem we are trying to solve?”  Follow it up with “Are we asking the right questions?”  This helps elicit more critical thinking and analysis, rather than regurgitating the same tired solutions.  In such situations, employees must have the freedom to voice concerns, air objections, and share ideas as well as doubts without being afraid of consequences.
  4. While a company wants to hire and employ teams that are cohesive and work well together, there is a danger in there being so much unity that no one is willing to speak against a well-liked and respected colleague or boss.  In those situations, verbal dissent and a willingness to ‘buck the system’ is useful.  Managers should look to hire people who are considered mavericks and nonconformists.  Such employees set the tone for the rest of the group to feel more comfortable in sharing their own ideas.  But the group’s climate must be safe for that to happen, and the company’s HR department must recruit and hire for those types of personalities.
  5. Leadership should avoid enabling the activities of ‘mindguards’.  These are people in an organization who become self-appointed censors of any issues or problems.  They hide problematic information from the team and especially the leadership.  By painting a rose picture, they keep controversial information from being shared in an open and transparent way.  This, in turn, creates an environment in which it is understood that not all comments or ideas are welcome, allowing problems to fester.  Case in point.  Without mindguards, the Enron-Arthur Anderson catastrophe could have been minimized and the demise of Borders and Blockbuster might have been avoided altogether.
  6. Top leaders might avoid being present in meetings to keep from overly influencing the direction of ideas.   But, when present, those leaders should make a point of not being highly critical of ideas offered or insulting of any employees willing to share an idea, no matter how silly it might sound.

Ultimately, it is up to both leaders and staff to work at eradicating Groupthink within a company.  According to motivational speaker Steve Pavlina, his advice to help employees avoid Groupthink is simple and yet challenging.  He advises “Think for yourself. Unplug yourself from follow-the-follower groupthink, and virtually ignore what everyone else in your industry is saying (except the ones everyone agrees is crazy). Do your own research, draw your own conclusions, set your own course, and stick to your guns. When you’re just starting out, people will tell you you’re wrong. After you’ve blown past them, they’ll tell you you’re crazy. A few years after that, they’ll (privately) ask you to mentor them.”  It might sound like controversial advice, but it is exactly what business leaders like Steve Jobs did.  In doing so, his company revolutionized an industry and changed the world.


Quote of the Week

“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” Dr. Irving Janis


© 2019, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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