Every decade or so, the term groupthink enters the public consciousness when a highly visible failure leaves people pondering how a group of competent people could have made such a disastrous decision.
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, groupthink was cited as a factor in leaders’ justification for the decision to invade. Groupthink is also cited as a reason behind the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, when NASA’s leadership approved the launch despite knowledge of failure risks for some of the shuttle’s components.
Today, high-pressure decisions are required in businesses as the economy pivots from the pandemic and into a potential recession, which makes the risk of groupthink high. Groupthink happens when the pressure to be agreeable, conform, or work quickly dominates a decision-making process instead of critical thinking. In the previous examples, both teams were under pressure from leaders to reach a certain decision and thus found ways to justify a predetermined conclusion rather than considering alternate opinions.
Groupthink doesn’t always have such tragic outcomes, but it always has consequences. In some instances, bad products may be brought to market, and good ideas disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again. What might be worse is the message it sends to an organization. When groupthink becomes common in decision-making it signals that innovation is not a priority, dissent is not welcomed, and all voices will not be included. These messages create a culture that squelches innovation and drives smart talent away.
Groupthink is tricky to identify because it often disguises itself as consensus. When a group of experts makes a decision, it must be a smart one, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. The good news is that there are common ways to tell that groupthink has taken hold in a conversation.
One easy way to spot it is to examine other ideas the group explored before making a choice. If people can elaborate on the thought process behind why these alternative ideas were ruled out, you can feel confident they were thinking critically and were not sucked into groupthink.
Another way to identify groupthink is to ask about the risks or tradeoffs of the decision the group has reached. If the team believes their plan is foolproof, they probably haven’t imagined everything that could go wrong. Overconfidence is a symptom of groupthink, and leaders should be ready to help teams poke holes in their plans, even when teams insist there are none. When in doubt, you can also ask the group outright if they felt pressure to reach their decision. Outside pressure or constraints like budget or time can lead a team towards a decision with many tradeoffs. This pressure is sometimes unavoidable, but being mindful of it can help them view ideas objectively despite it.
Moving past groupthink
If you catch groupthink taking hold of a team, there are some facilitation tricks that you can use to uncover new ideas and perspectives. These tricks allow you to create space to surface objects without totally commanding the conversation.
Brainstorm in silence: Groupthink creates a hostile environment for alternative ideas by putting the fear of judgment into those who suggest them. You can circumvent this fear by giving your team several minutes to silently write down ideas or questions on sticky notes (or virtual sticky notes), then collect and share them anonymously. This technique temporarily quiets the loudest voices in the room and puts everyone on an equal level to contribute.
One study found that the collective intelligence of a team “is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members,” but instead on “the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” Silent brainstorming is an easy way to force turn-taking.
Challenge overconfidence: Overconfidence in an idea often means there are risks that the group is failing or refusing to see. One way to challenge overconfidence is by playing the role of helpful dissenter, which is sometimes known by its other name: devil’s advocate. Sometimes, being a helpful dissenter is as simple as asking, “How might this fail?” If this doesn’t work, you may want to cast a confidence vote, asking people to vote on how confident they are that the idea is good. This vote might reveal that the group has dissenters who aren’t speaking up and create a breakthrough in the conversation.
Time meetings consciously: One driver of groupthink is rushing, which can be avoided through planning. For example, If you need to make an important decision with a group, it may be best not to plan that meeting on a Friday afternoon or before lunch or within days or hours of a deadline, or you might find the group in line falls behind a mediocre idea just to get out the door.
Similarly, one of the easiest ways to fight groupthink in a meeting is to use time as an ally. One of the most important tools at your disposal is offering the group a short break. Spending a few minutes away from the conversation will allow people to objectively observe the conversation, think of new ideas, or move away from existing ones.
Preventing groupthink isn’t the job of any one manager or leader. Rather, the overall culture of an organization is a good predictor of whether groupthink will arise in critical moments when important decisions must be made. Creating a culture of critical thinking and open conversations requires psychological safety, which must flourish holistically in an organization. Still, by being aware of the signs of groupthink, any leader can help their team navigate decisions to produce impactful and innovative outcomes.
Shipra Kayan is the principal product evangelist at Miro.