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< Productivity Glossary

What is groupthink?

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon when a group of people’s decisions are irrationally influenced by the desire for harmony and conformity, leading to a poor decision-making process. In simpler terms, it's the tendency for group members to prioritize agreement and group cohesion over a thorough evaluation of alternative ideas. This can happen even among well-intentioned groups where members value getting along over voicing dissenting opinions.

The term groupthink, as we know it today, was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. Janis, writing in Psychology Today, saw a need to describe a phenomenon affecting group decision-making. He borrowed the concept from Orwell's "doublethink" to create "groupthink," highlighting the pressure to conform that can cloud reason in groups.

How groupthink works

Groupthink isn't a sudden phenomenon. It unfolds through a series of social pressures and psychological mechanisms within a group. Here's a breakdown of the key factors:

  • Cohesiveness: Strong group bonds and a desire to maintain harmony can create pressure to conform. Members might prioritize agreement over voicing concerns that could disrupt the group dynamic.
  • Illusion of invulnerability: Groups experiencing success can develop an inflated sense of confidence, leading them to believe their decisions are infallible. This can blind them to potential risks or flaws in their thinking.
  • Pressure to conform: Individuals may feel pressure towards self-censorship, suppressing their doubts or disagreements to avoid being seen as disruptive or creating conflict within the group.
  • Mindguards: Certain lead group members might act as self-appointed protectors of group consensus, shielding the group from information contradicting the preferred course of action.
  • Stereotyped views of outgroups: Groups can develop negative stereotypes of those outside the group, making them less likely to consider external perspectives.

These factors combine to create an environment where critical thinking and dissent are discouraged, leading to a biased evaluation of information and, ultimately, poor decisions and negative outcomes.

Challenges with groupthink

When groupthink occurs, teams can experience several significant challenges that can hinder effective decision-making:

  • Suppressed dissent: The pressure to conform within a group can stifle dissenting opinions and critical thinking. This means valuable alternative perspectives and potential flaws in the leading idea might be overlooked.
  • Overconfidence & confirmation bias: The illusion of invulnerability that can arise in groupthink can lead to overconfidence in the group's ideas. This can also create a confirmation bias, where members focus on information confirming their beliefs and disregarding anything that contradicts them.
  • Poor risk assessment: Groupthink can lead to a superficial evaluation of potential risks associated with a decision. Groups may downplay or ignore potential problems due to the pressure to maintain a positive outlook.
  • Ethical dilemmas: The desire for agreement can sometimes lead groups to prioritize achieving a goal over ethical considerations. Members might be less likely to speak up if a proposed course of action raises ethical concerns.
  • Missed opportunities: By shutting down dissenting voices and alternative ideas, groups might miss out on creative solutions or innovative approaches to problems.

Best practices for avoiding groupthink

Fortunately, there are several strategies groups can use to mitigate and avoid groupthink to promote healthy discussion:

  • Diverse teams: Building teams with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives can help counter groupthink. This variety of viewpoints can lead to a more comprehensive evaluation of ideas and potential challenges.
  • Independent brainstorming: Encourage individual brainstorming before group discussions. This allows members to develop their own ideas without the pressure to conform to what others might be thinking.
  • Devil's advocate: Assign a group member the role of devil's advocate, whose responsibility is to challenge the prevailing viewpoint and identify potential weaknesses in the leading ideas.
  • Anonymous feedback: Consider incorporating anonymous feedback mechanisms, allowing members to share concerns or dissenting opinions without fear of judgment or repercussions.
  • Process focus: Shift the focus from achieving quick consensus to a thorough evaluation of options and perspectives. Establish clear decision-making processes that encourage open discussion and critical thinking.
  • Leadership style: Leaders who actively encourage diverse viewpoints and avoid shutting down dissent can create an environment where critical thinking thrives.

Examples of groupthink

Groupthink can manifest in various situations, impacting group decision-making across different fields. Here are a few historical and fictional examples:

Historical examples:

  • The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961): The CIA's plan for a Cuban exile invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro is a classic example of groupthink. Despite warnings and intelligence suggesting the plan's weaknesses, a strong group consensus and pressure to conform led the US government to approve the invasion, which ultimately failed.
  • Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (1986): Concerns raised by engineers regarding the safety of the launch due to cold weather conditions were downplayed, prioritizing launch schedules over potential risks. This decision, influenced by groupthink, resulted in the tragic loss of the crew.

Business examples:

  • New Coke Launch (1985): Coca-Cola, a titan in the beverage industry, decided to replace its signature cola recipe with a "New Coke" after taste tests indicated a preference for the sweeter option. However, there was a massive public outcry, and the company quickly brought back the original recipe. In hindsight, the decision to replace the iconic drink was likely fueled by groupthink within Coca-Cola, where the desire for consensus and fear of rocking the boat outweighed critical analysis of potential consumer backlash.
  • Blockbuster's Decline (1990s-2010): Blockbuster, once the undisputed leader in video rentals, failed to adapt to the rise of streaming services like Netflix. Internal resistance to change and a focus on maintaining the status quo led to missed opportunities (such as the chance to purchase Netflix) that ultimately doomed the company.

Fictional Examples:

  • Twelve Angry Men (1957 Film): This film portrays the dangers of groupthink within a jury. Initially, most jurors quickly lean towards convicting the defendant, but the group ultimately reaches a more just verdict through a lone juror's insistence on considering all evidence.
  • Lord of the Flies (Novel): This classic novel explores a group of boys stranded on an island who descend into chaos due to a lack of independent thinking and the pressure to conform to a dominant leader.

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