Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.
Groupthink can lead to important questions going unasked and assumptions remaining unchallenged. This is problematic for any company. How can you put an end to groupthink before it takes hold and create an environment in which ideas flourish and may be respectfully challenged at the planning table?
What is Groupthink?
The term “groupthink” was coined by William Whyte in an article for Fortune magazine in 1952. Whyte posited that groupthink was affecting every American institution, from schools to boardrooms to the Oval Office. Alarmed by the seemingly new propensity of organizations to value the group over the individual, Whyte penned a piece excoriating the practice. In it, he defined groupthink as:
“…a rationalized conformity – an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well. Three mutually supporting ideas form the underpinning: (1) that moral values and ethics are relative; (2) that what is important is the kind of behavior and attitudes that makes for the harmonious functioning of the group; (3) that the best way to achieve this is through the application of “scientific” techniques.”
Social psychologist Irving Janis is often (incorrectly) credited with coining the term ‘groupthink’ thanks to his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink, though he certainly did more to define it as an issue and to describe its symptoms. Janis stated that “Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” (1972). He studied how certain political events may have been caused by groupthink – including the Bay of Pigs debacle – and how President Kennedy was able to learn from that failure so as to implement a superior decision-making process which allowed for dissent and exploration. While some of Janis’ ideas about groupthink and cohesion have been discredited thanks to new evidence (including documents regarding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion), some of his research on the phenomenon remains relevant.
Why Groupthink Is a Problem
While the idea of a group working in unison is often presented in a positive light, it can too-easily lead to catastrophe.
Groupthink can readily lead to an environment in which people are afraid to speak out. It can curb innovation and creativity, stifling the growth of the business and threatening its future. It can also damage the group’s inherent values, leading it to function in ways inconsistent with its own morals or the company’s mission.
In his most recent book, Originals, Adam Grant devotes a chapter to groupthink (“Rethinking Groupthink: The Myths of Strong Cultures, Cults, and Devil’s Advocates”). Utilizing the latest studies available on group cohesion, he explores how groupthink affects companies and how to overcome the tendency to strive for consensus.
Grant states that Polaroid, an originator in film and cameras, lost their footing because of groupthink. “Within the company, there was widespread agreement that customers would always want hard copies of pictures, and key decision makers failed to question this assumption.”
Rather than investigating their own assumptions and examining how consumer preferences were changing due to new technologies, the Polaroid team stuck to their common viewpoint. This is a perfect example of how a group’s desire to be in agreement trumped their motivation to take a hard look at a changing reality and create a plan to deal directly with the new landscape. Instead, the CEO surrounded himself with yes-men during the company’s downturn, ensuring the doom of the camera world’s former high-flyer.
Symptoms of Groupthink
Janis proposed the following symptoms of groupthink as an aid to help organizations discover any tendencies toward the destructive phenomenon (I’ve expanded upon them a bit here in order to provide context):
Illusion of Invulnerability
If you’re feeling as though nothing could challenge your company’s dominance or that you’re immune to failure, you may be more apt to take unnecessary risks or fail to see the warning signs of a growing problem. The latter can be especially problematic for companies that fail to shift with their changing target market.
When red flags are rationalized as red herrings and ignored or when assumptions are treated as facts, the group is failing to investigate the premises on which the company rests and may learn too late that such rationalizations often lead to failures to adapt or to recognize obvious (in retrospect) issues.
Belief in Inherent Morality
The notion that the group knows best – that somehow two or three or ten minds are better than one – can lead to large errors of judgement and action. Assuming that the world inside your group bubble functions in a manner consistent with the company’s values – and that any idea or suggestion proffered by the group is necessarily moral – is dangerous. Groupthink can lead to cancerous moral relativity and may cause members to act contrary to their own beliefs. It requires a strong sense of self-reliance in order to stand against such relativity and to ensure that the company’s values are truly in line with those of the individuals running it.
Stereotyped Views of Out-Groups
It’s easy to frame competitors as “other” and to view those who don’t utilize your services or purchases your product as belonging to a group which simply doesn’t know better. This view can lead to errors in judgement and make it more difficult to grow your market. Your competition shouldn’t be viewed solely as an enemy; they’re also your fellow innovators. You can learn from them and simultaneously motivate yourself toward new heights. Similarly, those not utilizing your products or services may fail to understand them. This isn’t necessarily their failure – your company may have failed to reach them effectively. Rather than stereotyping these groups, it’s better to consider how best to learn from them and grow. They can function as a source of valuable information to help amend your business plan or growth strategy.
Direct Pressure on Dissenters
If those who share opposing or differing viewpoints are summarily dismissed or ignored, they’ll speak out less and less over time. This may make it seem as though the group is of one mind despite the truth being substantially different: that the group is being controlled by fear. No one wants to upset the boss or be put in the proverbial hot seat. This fear can cripple information gathering and innovation and inexorably reduce your company’s best minds to a counterproductive group of yes-men.
If you’re part of a team and you fail to speak up when you have a reservation or a new idea, that is a significant problem. The group should be a comfortable place in which to share and, even when one’s ideas are not implemented, one should never feel as though they’re inhibited from sharing them. This can be a difficult symptom to diagnose; if you have an individual on your team who formerly spoke up frequently and is now doing so less often, they may be self-censoring due to an altered group dynamic.
Illusion of Unanimity
Does it seem as though everyone is of the same mind? Is the number of points on which the team agrees simply amazing? If it seems too good to be true, it very well may be so. Take care to check that dissenters and alternate viewpoints aren’t being dismissed out of hand in order to keep the peace and confirm that individuals are unafraid to speak.
Oh, don’t worry him with that” should not be a common refrain in your company. If team members are afraid to bring you contradictory information or new evidence that challenges what the company is doing, they aren’t protecting you, they’re failing the company. Mindguards may believe that they’re protecting the company’s status-quo, but they’re actually damaging it.
These symptoms might not seem to be entirely negative in and of themselves, but once they begin to accumulate and decision after decision is made in this bubble, the detrimental effects can begin to stack up. Having an understanding of just how to dismantle this negative group culture and to create an anti-groupthink environment is key to avoiding negative impacts on your business.
Overcoming Groupthink and Allowing Dissent
To combat groupthink, it is necessary to create an environment within which the status quo can be challenged without retaliation.
Grant cited Bridgewater Associates, a Connecticut investment firm, as an organization that has successfully combatted groupthink – and has prospered because of it. The company has accomplished this through the application of founder and CEO Ray Dalio’s principles.
The principles (shared here) are the backbone of the Bridgewater culture. The expectation is that each employee will take these principles to heart and live them – not only at work, but at home. By following the principles, it is assumed that the company will thrive because new ideas will emerge and bad ideas will be challenged. The principles call for complete honesty and advocate speaking out. Failure to speak out and address issues can lead to termination.
While that sort of corporate culture may not be suitable for everyone, Dalio’s principles certainly provide an interesting framework and methodology for others interested in establishing innovative spaces which shun groupthink. The biggest takeaway from his principles may be the need to foster an open community within a work environment that empowers individuals to advocate for their own ideas and to critique others’ without fear of reprisal.
One popular method of addressing groupthink concerns is to utilize a devil’s advocate. The thought is that, by assigning someone to function as a designated dissenter, the group will be forced to justify their decisions and to seek alternatives. However, an assigned devil’s advocate will only rarely argue in favor of a given idea as passionately and genuinely as they would for their own.
Rather than assigning a devil’s advocate, it’s better to find someone who truly believes that an alternative solution is superior. This natural dissenter will more effectively speak for their own idea and share their rationale with the group.
If you’re concerned that your organization may be falling prey to groupthink, consider whether:
- People are uncomfortable speaking out
- Dissenting or sharing an unpopular opinion results in backlash
- There are taboo topics that may not discussed
If you identify one of these issues, it’s imperative to act. While it may feel as though reaching consensus is a positive step, any attempt to do so can stall growth and lead to everyone ignoring the elephant in the room.
Consider the following techniques for identifying and eliminating groupthink:
- Establish values that prize openness and honesty.
- Ensure that multiple viewpoints are represented.
- Question everything!
- Have the difficult conversations necessary to foster transparency.
- Encourage honesty and healthy dissent.
- Challenge so-called best practices – they’re only “the best” because a better way has not yet been found. Find the better way!
- Think of what could go wrong. If you have a plan of action, don’t focus solely on the good that it could do. Consider the ways in which it could go wrong and actively question your own thought process. Ensure that others are doing this, as well.
- Let your team members be individuals. When team members are encouraged to think of solutions by themselves prior to meeting for joint problem-solving, they often arrive at better (and more varied) solutions than would’ve resulted from a traditional brainstorming session.
Don’t let groupthink sabotage your company. Take steps to ensure that openness and honesty are prized at your startup and that everyone understands the importance of speaking up as individuals.
Remember: Nothing positive has ever been accomplished by a committee!
About the Author
Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).
Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.
Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.