Beware of Groupthink!

Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” to describe the situation where a group of people who have a high level of cohesiveness develop a desire to maintain unanimity that overrides their motivation to consider the facts of an issue in a realistic manner. In other words, they put “getting on with each other” above clear, objective thought.

There’s more of it about that you think. Political parties and religious bodies are fertile grounds for groupthink, but no type of organisation is immune.

What are the symptoms of groupthink?

There is often an illusion of invulnerability – “we are special!” Also, there is often a belief in the inherent morality of the group – “we are right!” There is very selective gathering of information – of course only that which accords with the group’s view. And there is self-censorship – opinions are tempered and truth is discarded to maintain the group’s cohesion. Finally, pressure is put on dissenters to “protect” the group from negative views.

So, what causes groupthink?

Well, as I mentioned, high levels of cohesion are involved. Also, the group tends to be insulated from any alternative opinions, either by design or through believing outside opinions are not necessary. Another key cause of groupthink is when there is a very directive leader who isn’t shy at making her thoughts known.

Is groupthink bad…?

I’m afraid so. The group limits discussions to only a few alternatives. Ideas favoured by the majority will be quickly adopted without much thought for downsides or alternatives. Expert opinion is never sought. The group is highly selective in gathering information. There is high confidence in success and therefore there is seldom a Plan B….

So, how to prevent groupthink…?

Seek or be a devil’s advocate. Encourage everyone to be a critical evaluator. The leader should keep her thoughts to herself. (I used to have a boss who would carefully outline his position on major issues before asking those around the table what they thought…ha!)

You can divide into subgroups or set up independent groups. Discuss issues with outsiders and invite others into the group to bring in fresh ideas.

And if you think this doesn’t apply to you because you are self-employed I’m afraid it does. You don’t need a group for groupthink, you can do it all by yourself in your own head….now there’s a thought…


2 Responses to Beware of Groupthink!

  1. Eilidh Milnes February 21, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Mondays would not be the same without a “pearl” from you Mark…
    As someone who enjoys the role of devil’s advocate I feel vindicated. However, my mother used to say the devil needs no more advocates!

    My input?

    Have a three letter word in the forefront of you mind when in the midst of a group think – “Why?” and if you are challenged by a group member or proposed action search for for the “So what?”….”The takeaway or outcome of that decision or action.”
    Hope you and your readers have additional pearls to share… a bientot,


  1. Tweets that mention Beware of Groupthink! - Pearls Of Leadership Wisdom -- - February 21, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by concept metal, misterchapeau and EilidhMilnes, Mark Nugent. Mark Nugent said: Beware of Groupthink!: Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink” to describe the situa… […]

Leave a Reply