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Challenging and Preventing the Groupthink Attitude

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How does the team(s) within which you find yourself feel about itself? 

Does the team self-censor and bite their tongue on challenging certain issues?

Might your leadership style be overpowering and drive hidden reluctant compliance?

Could you and your team be suffering from symptoms of groupthink?

Noted psychologist Irving Janis defined groupthink as: "A mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.

Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures."

As well as this, it can also refer to the tendency of groups to agree with powerful, intimidating bosses.

The known perils involved in individual decision making—selective perception, excessive self-interest, limited knowledge, limited time—mean most important decisions today are made in groups (and committees!).

Groups can do a spectacular job; but they often do not. Meetings, the place where groups do their decision-making work, have acquired a bad reputation, largely because of processes such as groupthink.

Groupthink is the result of flawed procedures, poor leadership, insulation and an unmanaged desire for the maintenance of group cohesion and its good feelings.

Having worked with and observed many teams, I notice three recurring potential problems:

  • Overestimation of group importance
  • Closed mindedness – becoming insular
  • Pressures toward uniformity – suppressing individuality
  • Clues are everywhere but, if not noticed and acted upon early, as these characteristics embed they can get ignored and the messengers of difference are dismissed.

There are several things good leaders and organisations can do to avoid groupthink:

  • Evaluate often, set and review/raise benchmarks
  • Consult widely, encourage new and external input
  • Create safe and honest space for sharing/challenge/diversity of thought

A useful process change for meetings that has borne benefit has been to present competing views and decision making processes at the outset of meetings - challenge the team to first state what they like about the competing view and second articulate the gap between that and the existing view, before dissecting it!

Completing decision making in the first 60-70% of a meeting, rather than at pace at the tail end of meetings, decreases the likelihood of quiet nodded compliance.

You can then move on to brainstorming for the last 20-30 percent of the meeting.

This meeting technique allows for decompression and for rebonding of the group and orient more to future activities and growth.

Other pattern-breaks are to move meeting venues and styles, take them off site, mix things up, flip things around and explore how the group can be taken out of their comfort zone and patterns of behaviour (perhaps this can be a discussion in the 20-30% part of meetings).

Team members are likely to differ in temperament, so tune in to the nuances and preferences, and create opportunities for the quieter and reflective colleagues to share where they might otherwise not.

Leadership almost always involves getting work done with and through others - high-quality decisions are not made through intimidation, whether intentional or unintentional.

Some leaders have no idea why people do not speak up, while the reason they do not is often because they are likely to be attacked.

Leaders encourage the best performance from groups when they can alert them to the kind of review that is expected.

If the leader can be clear, and temperate, there is a greater likelihood that norms of positive disagreement will develop.

This is essential to avoiding groupthink and creating the right attitudes for progress and improvement.

Simon Tyler

Simon Tyler

Inspirational speaker | Facilitator | Coach


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