Don’t Let Groupthink Rule Your Workplace

The best leaders encourage their team members to challenge questionable ideas and assumptions

Back Article May 11, 2017 By Tania Fowler

Groupthink is all too common when people work together in a brainstorming or planning session. Psychology Today says groupthink “occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader, and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.”

This phenomenon can veer a team or company off course, or it can result in people stereotyping others, including their colleagues — neither is good for a company.

Working with groups, I often observe groupthink happening in real time. For instance, in workshops on temperament and interaction styles, I facilitate an exercise based on polarities of personality. If I am using extroversion/introversion, I’ll ask participants to stand up, self-select into one of those two groups and move to the appropriate end of the room.

Once in their teams, they brainstorm answers to the questions of what they like and dislike about their own personality type, and what they like or dislike about the other type. While the exercise is usually fun, sometimes a more sinister tone unfolds: They engage in unflattering generalities and assumptions.

I have heard introverts say extroverts “suck the oxygen out of the room.” And I have heard extroverts say, “introverts are angry, unhappy and disinterested people.”

One time, a group of extroverts even suggested that introverts were more likely to murder than extroverts. My eyes about popped out of my head! I asked the extroverted group for their data on such a claim. They shrugged and guffawed knowing they had nothing but a hunch.

This is an example of groupthink: People accepted a not-so-good idea as plausible to maintain harmony and coherence within their group. They opted for conformity rather than critical discourse.

When challenged, they agreed they had gone too far and took back the accusation. But it’s important to note that it only took one person to throw out the murderer idea and, instead of challenging such a broad and baseless assumption, the group added it to their charted answers.

This is an example of groupthink: People accepted a not-so-good idea as plausible in order to maintain harmony and coherence within their group. They opted for conformity rather than critical discourse.

Groupthink happens everywhere. In another example, one company I worked with made a group decision to move quickly on an implementation plan because it was faster and less bureaucratic, which was exciting to them. But after a few years, the quality of the installation wasn’t there and they decided to go back to the slightly slower and less exciting process of utilizing tighter controls.

The next time your team comes together to make decisions, follow some simple suggestions to lessen your chances of groupthink:

  • Create team discussion norms for how the group will work together, such as: Put all ideas on the table. Be respectful and listen to differing viewpoints. Challenge questionable ideas and assumptions by asking about unintended consequences.
  • The team leader should help teammates safely wade into ideological conflict to flesh out ideas even going so far as to force more conflict. When teammates shy away from an issue because of discomfort about delving further, that’s an opportunity for the leader to lead by saying, “This is a good direction, let’s keep going to get to a well-vetted solution.”
  • Allow enough time for a solid discussion to occur. In this fast-paced world, people tend to underestimate the time it takes to work through ideas.
  • Make sure there are assertive people willing to step in and challenge ideas, while at the same time not co-opting or devaluing the process.
  • The team leader should hang back from influencing the process, other than to help people feel safe in the discussion.

Finally, if you are the leader of a team or organization, be on the lookout for how many “yes” people are in your orbit — those who don’t challenge assumptions and ideas in your presence. Reflect on what you might be doing to contribute to that problem and course-correct.  

Groupthink is, unfortunately, alive and well. Have courage and be the person willing to ask questions to examine a decision that might not be in the organization’s best interest.