Two (or more) brains are better than one, right? That’s true – unless all of those brains end up thinking the exact same thoughts at the exact same time.
That’s groupthink: a collective phenomenon that can hinder your team from benefiting from all of the diverse perspectives, experiences, and ideas you should be tapping into.
But what exactly is groupthink? Why is it bad? And most importantly, how can you prevent it? Here’s how to stop the mind meld and encourage independent thinking on your team.
What is groupthink?
Rather than poking holes in each other’s arguments, voicing doubts, analyzing potential consequences, or offering new ideas and suggestions, group members simply nod along and agree with each other.
This doesn’t only happen on teams full of weak-minded pushovers – any team, under the wrong circumstances, could fall victim. Here are a few factors we know trigger the phenomenon:
- Team members don’t feel psychologically safe to dissent or disagree
- Team members are under heavy pressure to make a decision
- Team members don’t feel they have the right knowledge to contradict the status quo
- Team culture favors harmony and cohesion over conflict and dissent
All of those can inspire people to skip the hard conversations and go along with the group – even if the decision isn’t the best way forward.
What is an example of groupthink?
Crack open a history book and you’ll find plenty of examples of groupthink. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Challenger disaster, and the Vietnam War are all commonly cited examples of times when groups conformed to bad decisions.
Fortunately, while groupthink can happen in any sort of work setting, it’s usually not quite so disastrous. Here are a couple of ways you might see groupthink show up during decision-making at work:
- Your team is finalizing the timeline for a new product launch. The schedule is ambitious (and likely completely unrealistic), but everybody is so enthusiastic that you keep your lips zipped, join in on the anticipation and excitement, and skip voicing your concerns.
- During a team meeting, your manager asks your team to choose which project you should prioritize next. One vocal member of your team makes the case for a project. You and other team members came to the meeting with your own ideas, but this person is on a roll and it seems easier to just go with their suggestion, even if it’s not the most pressing project on the team’s list.
- Your team prepared for a major customer event that’s happening outdoors. When the venue asked a few weeks ago if you’d like to rent tents in case of inclement weather, everybody brushed it off. When it unexpectedly rains the day of, you’re all caught off guard with absolutely no backup plan.
So, not quite as catastrophic as some of those classic examples throughout history. But prioritizing allegiance and obedience over reasoning and rationale can have serious consequences for teams.
What are the pitfalls of groupthink?
So what do those consequences actually look like? Groupthink can lead to some not-so-great outcomes, including:
- Poor decision-making: One of the biggest drawbacks of groupthink is that it hinders quality decision-making and problem-solving. The group becomes so focused on not rocking the boat that they’re willing to go along with what is ultimately a poor decision without any protest.
- Lack of diverse perspectives: When people resist speaking up, the group misses out on different experiences and ideas. That limited view only gets worse as group members feel like they need to continue to censor themselves. In fact, research shows that groupthink is more likely to happen on homogenous teams. When groups already share a lot of similarities, they want to preserve that sense of unity.
- Overconfidence: There’s power in numbers, and groupthink can fuel a sense of superiority – as if the team is bulletproof and couldn’t possibly fall victim to a bad decision. The group is always right. Those overinflated egos can get the team into some precarious situations they’re completely unprepared for.
Is groupthink always bad?
Groupthink gets a bad rap, but it’s not always detrimental. It all depends on the stakes of the decision. If your team is faced with a low-pressure choice that’s not super consequential (like what to order for lunch or where to host your next offsite), a desire for cohesion can actually reduce conflict and encourage faster, smoother decision-making.
Ask yourself this: Do you need the best decision, or just a decision? If it’s the latter, groupthink isn’t always such a bad thing.
What are the characteristics of groupthink?
Groupthink can cause some problems on teams, but it’s also tough to recognize. After all, in the heat of the moment, it never feels bad when your whole team is agreeing, high-fiving, and getting along.
- Illusions of invulnerability: The group feels impenetrable and like they’ll never have to deal with any fallout from their decisions.
- Illusions of unanimity: The group assumes that all decisions are unanimous without even asking for other opinions or perspectives.
- Mindguards: A subset of group members appoint themselves as the group’s protectors – the ones who will keep any dissenting opinions or negative views at bay.
- Pressure on opposing views: The group subtly or directly applies pressure to people who voice concerns or doubts to shut down those opinions and encourage conformity.
- Rationalization of the group’s decisions: The group avoids, ignores, or completely shuts down any negative feedback or contradictory opinions and justifies that by highlighting the upsides of their own decision.
- Self-censorship: The group members keep quiet even when they have an idea or criticism, because they’ve learned that the cohesion of the group is more important than their own contribution.
- Stereotyping of the out-group: The group shares unquestionably negative views of anybody who disagrees with their decisions.
- Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group: The group feels that they’re unquestionably noble, principled, and always right.
How to avoid groupthink: 3 strategies to encourage critical thinking
Whenever you’re working as part of a team, there’s the potential for groupthink to creep in. Fortunately, there are a few strategies you can use to encourage individual thought without increasing conflict.
As a baseline, consider focusing on consent versus consensus. Atlassian’s own Modern Work Coach Mark Cruth explains, “consent allows a team to acknowledge that not everyone will (or should) agree with an idea, but focuses on ensuring an idea won’t be detrimental to the team’s goals. It helps a team build an experimentation mindset around their work.”
1. Prioritize psychological safety
Fostering psychological safety – which is when team members feel secure in disagreeing, making mistakes, or offering bold suggestions without the fear of judgment or repercussions – is one of the best ways to combat groupthink.
People are more likely to speak up when they feel like they have the permission and encouragement to do so. Makes sense, right?
There are plenty of ways you can breed this sense of security on your team, including:
- Using a democratic leadership style to include people in decision-making
- Actively soliciting feedback and opinions – especially ones that are different from the group’s. Mark suggests a technique called the 1-2-4-All method to generate and combine ideas until a final idea emerges.
- Modeling vulnerability by openly sharing your own mistakes and missteps
- Treating failures or problems as learning opportunities rather than threats
You could also consider allowing people to submit contributions or suggestions anonymously, as that gives team members a built-in sense of protection. However, proceed with caution here. If people are only willing to speak up when their identity isn’t attached, that’s a solid indicator that there’s not a high degree of psychological safety on your team.
Mark also notes that “psychological safety isn’t something you can do… it’s only achievable through consistent action.” Take care and be deliberate about creating an environment where psychological safety can thrive. “Becoming clear about how you communicate and share feedback will help psychological safety grow within your team,” Mark says.
2. Minimize stress and pressure
Research shows that groupthink is way more prevalent when groups feel stressed. They’re under the wire to make a decision and move forward, so it’s easier (not to mention faster) to go along with the consensus. That’s preferable to dragging the process out, particularly when they’re eager for a resolution.
In contrast, when you make an effort to mitigate the amount of pressure your team is under, they have more time and space to debate and discuss. This could mean:
- Building adequate time for brainstorming, problem-solving, and decision-making into your project timelines
- Ensuring all team members have manageable and reasonable workloads
- Reducing the number of urgent or time-sensitive decisions the team needs to make
- Clarifying which decisions are high-impact and which aren’t as consequential, so the team can react accordingly
Of course, things still happen and fires crop up. But the more you can manage the amount of stress on your team, the less likely they are to grit their teeth and default to groupthink just to get through it.
3. Encourage independent thought
Kind of a no-brainer: getting everybody to think for themselves is obviously the best way to keep groupthink far away from your team. But how do you actually get people to think independently? You can try:
- Brainwriting: In brainstorming sessions, team members get a set amount of time to independently write down their ideas alone before sharing with the bigger group. Research shows that most people are actually most creative when they work alone, and one small brainwriting study proves that a little bit of quiet time generates more and better ideas.
- Six Thinking Hats: In this exercise, team members wear different “hats,” a metaphor for thinking about a problem or decision with different perspectives. The entire team wears the same “hat” at the same time, which you’d think would encourage groupthink. Instead, it provides an opportunity to explore a decision from all sides, encouraging exploration and questions rather than shutting them down.
- Designate a dissenter: Want to get some more controversial suggestions or opinions in the mix? Assign someone the role of the dissenter when your team is in a discussion. This person is required to ask questions, poke holes, and offer constructive criticism. Will it be a little uncomfortable at first? Sure. But it keeps people on their toes and models healthy and respectful dissent for the rest of the team.
- Mark also suggests the Disruptive Brainstorming Play from the Atlassian Team Playbook, “to help flip traditional brainstorming on its head. The goal of the play is to add enough variety and unpredictability to the brainstorming process to prevent groupthink from setting in.”
Regardless of the type of divergent thinking exercise you use, your goal is to get your team to start thinking more independently – and the exercise gives them a framework (as well as explicit permission) to do something that might not be the norm on your team: think outside the box.
Don’t let cohesion sabotage creativity
There’s a lot of value in having diverse perspectives, experiences, and ideas on your team. But you only benefit if people openly share their out-of-the-box (or even controversial) suggestions.
“So many people misunderstand ‘cohesion’ as ‘being nice to each other,’” Mark says. “But cohesion is really the same as that bond we feel with close friends and family members, where we inherently trust the other people on our team even if we disagree with them. And when we do disagree, we let them know! Cohesion is about kindness, and not hiding how we feel because we know our thoughts are welcomed no matter what.”
Groupthink can keep those kinds of conversations locked down, because team members find it easier to stick with the group than to voice their own thoughts, concerns, or constructive criticism.
Think there’s absolutely no way it could happen on your team? Do a gut check and see if that’s actually true – or if you’re simply more comfortable thinking that way.
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