You’re holding a meeting with your team. Everyone is discussing problems, sharing information, and giving their feedback. Then, when it comes time to make a decision, you offer a suggestion that everyone immediately agrees with. You end the session thinking how well it went. Maybe your most successful meeting ever.
Of course, it’s only later, after the data comes in, when you realize that the decision you made — and that everyone was on board with — was based on incomplete information. Even worse, your employees knew this but didn’t speak up about it, despite their reservations. You’ve just become a victim of one of the most common and detrimental psychological phenomena in decision-making: Groupthink.
But, there’s hope. Learn what group think is and use this guide as a framework to mitigate the negative consequences of groupthink and improve group decision-making at your organization.
What is groupthink?
Groupthink is whenever members of a group decide, whether consciously or unconsciously, that it is more important to agree with one another and reach a consensus than it is to challenge assumptions, raise questions, or offer conflicting opinions.
Group harmony and maintaining the status quo are a higher priority than critical thinking, thoughtful discussion, or healthy conflict. As a result, groupthink often leads to poor decisions.
Examples of groupthink can be found almost anywhere, from small teams to large and complex organizations. One prominent and tragic example is the Challenger disaster of 1986. Although NASA scientists were aware that the O-ring was sensitive to cold temperatures, they still decided to proceed with the launch despite the fact the air around the launchpad was a frigid 36 degrees. This flawed decision led to the loss of seven lives.
What causes groupthink?
Groupthink hardly ever happens on its own. Instead, it's usually a symptom of some other issues. Here are a few reasons a team may start unintentionally becoming victims of groupthink:
Poor conflict management
Conflict is unavoidable and can even be healthy when managed effectively. But problems arise when organizations don’t have the processes and procedures for handling conflict.
In these cases, conflict can quickly become toxic, leading to employees going out of their way to avoid it, even if that means agreeing with decisions they don’t think are correct.
Psychological safety issues
A hallmark of high-functioning teams, psychological safety is when people feel comfortable enough to share their opinions, take risks, and try out new things without fear of repercussions or criticism. It's especially important for new and lower level employees, who may feel more vulnerable in their roles.
Because of this, the onus is on leaders and managers to make sure they are creating a healthy work environment, rather than one that may slip into groupthink.
Lack of diversity
Ideas, creative solutions, and critical thinking are all the result of life experiences and different perspectives that led to them.
This means that if there is too much homogeneity within an organization, then don’t be surprised when everyone thinks the same way. Diverse teams, particularly in leadership settings, can help keep groupthink at bay.
Learn more: How you can help foster diversity and inclusion from the ground up.
How to spot groupthink
Groupthink is dangerous because it happens without warning. Decision-makers may have the best intentions, yet for one or more of the reasons described above, it can suddenly take hold. Fortunately, it can be spotted easily if you’re looking for the right signs. Here’s what to watch out for:
- Quick and unanimous agreement: Group consensus can be a good thing, but it might be a sign of groupthink. If everyone reaches agreement, quickly and without little discussion or dissent, something may be wrong. This concept is known as the illusion of unanimity.
- Direct pressure to pick sides: Well-functioning groups will give each person the freedom (and safety) to come to their own conclusions. When there's pressure to pick certain sides, especially from leaders, groupthink is probably the culprit.
- Little pushback or follow-up questions: When a decision is made, be wary if there’s no one raising their hand afterwards. This is known as “invulnerability,” and is especially common in problem-solving for complex issues.
- Limited research: If a group is only looking for information that confirms their decision or existing beliefs, then disregarding the rest, it’s likely a sign of groupthink.
- Resistance to reevaluation: After a decision is made, watch out if the team resists revisiting or reevaluating their choices, even in the face of new information.
5 tips to prevent groupthink
Groupthink may be a pervasive problem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be avoided. Making sure this mindset doesn’t take hold in your team just requires some proactive prevention. Here are a few strategies you can use to overcome groupthink and make sure your team is making better decisions.
1. Take care to identify and thoroughly understand the problem
When considering any problem, the first step should be to make sure everyone is on the same page. This is especially important when groupthink is a concern. After all, without an awareness of the full context and complexities you’re facing, it’ll probably be a lot easier to reach an agreement — but it'd be premature.
Instead, it’s worth taking the time to properly identify and understand what you’re trying to solve. You should do this by first working to define the problem. Research it and talk to those affected by it, then consider using a visual template to gather and organize this information for everyone to see. Bring your stakeholders together to get a broader view of the problem, then ask everyone to brainstorm as many potential root causes as they can. Once you have a list, discuss the results and, if you like, hold a vote.
After you’ve gone through this framework, you should be able to align on what the most important issues are and be able to objectively discuss the many ways to approach them.
2. Choose from a larger pool of ideas
The groupthink mindset hates creativity. Teams and organizations suffering from groupthink will just want to latch onto one idea and hold on. That’s why one of the best ways to prevent groupthink before it can even start is to give your team the opportunity — and the environment — to come up with as many ideas as they can.
To accomplish this, it may be time to reconsider the way your team brainstorms. Although brainstorming is considered an essential practice for coming up with creative ideas, too many teams simply sit around a room waiting for suggestions. Instead, why not try a more strategic approach?
The mind map brainstorming technique can make it easy to explore all the potential variables tied to a project, while the round robin technique makes it easy for members of the group to build on each other’s ideas.
Creative brainstorming approaches are likely to lead to more creative ideas — and steer your team away from the trap of groupthink.
3. Find ways to remove bias
Groupthink can arise out of a complicated set of circumstances, but sometimes the cause can be as simple as just wanting to fit in. This can keep group members from sharing conflicting viewpoints or unique opinions for fear they’ll stick out from the crowd. Fortunately, this kind of bias has an easy fix.
By incorporating an anonymous component early in the ideation process, you can help make sure individual team members can speak their minds freely without fear of reprisal. You can do this in many ways.
For instance, asking your team to write down ideas on slips of paper and submit them to a box is a simple but straightforward strategy. Or, if you’re looking for an even more flexible option, Mural offers both a Private Mode for providing input, as well as a Voting feature that allows participants to share their points of view anonymously.
Regardless of how you approach this issue, taking the personal component out of your meeting can help remove bias.
4. Don't always try to optimize for the "best" solution
We’re all human, which means we all have our own opinions. As a facilitator, however, this can sometimes get in your way. While you’re likely to have a preferred solution to a problem — one that you undoubtedly think of as the “best” — promoting this solution can backfire if people start agreeing with you just because of your role.
So how can you protect against self-sabotage in your next meeting? One way is to encourage your group to suggest options that address one aspect of the problem, rather than pressing them to find an ideal solution.
Pay close attention to how you prompt them to do this. For example, rather than asking them to suggest what they think is “the best solution,” ask them to each come up with an outside-the-box idea that solves something different.
While there are tradeoffs to this approach (it might take longer to find a comprehensive solution), it'll help prevent everyone from blindly following one idea.
5. Encourage low-risk conflict
Plenty of people are afraid of conflict. And often for good reason. Poorly managed disagreements can quickly turn personal, making people feel unsafe. But when conflict is carried out carefully, it can actually have the opposite effect by encouraging the group to evaluate the quality of their ideas, helping the best ones flourish.
To make this happen, try to get into the habit of gently pushing back on every idea. Don’t just accept someone’s idea at face value. Make them justify it by asking them why they think it's good.
Or, if you are comfortable playing devil’s advocate, try countering their idea with all the reasons it won’t work. If they can successfully defend it, or at least convince the rest of the group of its merits, their idea is probably worth considering after all.
Managing low-risk conflict like this can take time to learn, but it can help dramatically reduce the chances of groupthink.
Level up your teamwork by addressing groupthink
Groupthink may be a common problem for many organizations in the age of hybrid and remote work, but that’s no reason you should let it affect your team.
By taking the time to learn how groupthink forms and what it looks like, as well as implementing strategies for preventing it in the first place, team leaders can encourage their teams to challenge itself to come up with more diverse, creative, and effective ideas.
Chances are, those will be the ones that solve your problems.