There are several misfortunes in history that could’ve been avoided if someone had spoken out against groupthink, those decisions that are made irrationally simply to go along with the group. We could mention the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, even the Titanic disaster. Would one of the greatest shipwrecks in history have been avoided if someone had advised against sailing at full speed on an icy ocean full of icebergs?
The consequences of those events serve today as a grim reminder and an ethical lesson of the dangers of group or collective thinking. This psychological phenomenon, which implies a tendency to conform to dominant opinions and suppress critical voices, was a determining factor in the tragic outcome of those events.
What will I read about in this article?
The peer pressure that silenced critical voices that could have averted a tragedy
The danger of groupthink lies in its ability to undermine decision-making and critical consideration of risks. The complacency that comes from conformity can blind us to crucial details and lead to catastrophic consequences.
“The danger of groupthink lies in its ability to undermine informed decision making and critical consideration of risks”.
This is precisely what happened in the disasters mentioned at the beginning of this text. Episodes that remind us of the importance of fostering a culture where critical thinking is valued and open communication is promoted. By encouraging diversity of opinion and providing a safe space for the expression of concerns, we can avoid falling into the clutches of groupthink and its traps.
Groupthink: when social pressure overrides self-judgement
In any group situation, people want to feel accepted by other members and seek approval, consciously and unconsciously. Groupthink theory, developed by psychologist Irving Janis, refers to the tendency of groups to make irrational or poor-quality decisions due to social pressure, conformity and the false illusion of unanimity. This theory explains how groups can lose objectivity and make decisions based on the desire to avoid conflict and maintain harmony within the group.
Groupthink can be influenced by factors such as pressure from the group leader, the presence of an external enemy or high group cohesion. These aspects can lead to a ‘false consensus’, where group members support decisions that are not necessarily the best options because criticism is suppressed and self-censorship is encouraged, leading to a lack of consideration of alternatives and an overvaluation of shared opinions.
“Members of the group support decisions that are not necessarily the best options because criticism is suppressed and self-censorship is encouraged”.
How does groupthink affect our decision-making?
The team forms a compact unit. Everyone is connected, whether working on site or remotely. Collaboration is seamless and decisions are quick. When you’re the new boss, it’s great that employees agree with you on everything but, rewind for a moment, are you sure your team is actually doing its job or could they be suffering from a case of groupthink?
Hasn’t it ever happened to you that you’re in a meeting at work or in private and everyone seems to agree with an idea, but no one dares to express a contrary opinion? This is a clear example of groupthink, where social pressure and the desire to fit in can silence our own ideas and perspectives.
Would you be able to identify other examples? Check it out in this Quiz
It is a problem because it affects the individual’s professional and personal development, encouraging them to conform to the opinions and decisions of the group, rather than to think independently and critically.
When we’re immersed in a group-think environment, we run the risk of making the wrong decisions. It can also limit the diversity of ideas and perspectives in the decision-making process. If everyone in the group agrees and avoids disagreement, it is less likely that new ideas will be generated or different approaches considered.
How to avoid groupthink?
It is recommended to foster an environment where open discussion and constructive debate is promoted, encouraging group members to express divergent opinions and consider different perspectives.
Fortunately, not all teams suffer from the effects of groupthink. But when and how to overcome groupthink? Harvard Business Review (HRB) experts conducted a study to find out. What they found was that those who have managed to avoid groupthink undertook the following steps:
Challenging the status quo.
People tend to believe that existing solutions must be good. According to the researchers, groups are tempted to gravitate towards the status quo because they don’t dare or don’t want to face the high cost of getting it wrong and failing. Thus, they hide behind premises such as: “Others used it before and it worked then, so it’s not our fault that it doesn’t work now”.
What they found with the HBR study is that groupthink was overcome when a team member began to express disagreement with the status quo.
Adopt a placeholder solution.
The next key moment to avoid groupthink is when a member reacts to the trigger by proposing liminal ideas. Liminal ideas refer to thoughts, concepts or perspectives that exist at the margins, at the boundaries or on the threshold between two different states or conditions. The term “liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen”, meaning “threshold”. In a cultural or sociological context, liminal ideas are often explored in situations of change, transition or uncertainty, where old belief systems or structures may be questioned or challenged.
Often, the pressure to make the right analysis or decision can be paralysing. Treating new ideas as liminal (rather than literal) allowed members to relieve some of this pressure and enter a transitional space where play and experimentation were encouraged.
This helps to challenge established norms and invites exploration of new possibilities. While it may not be the final solution, it allows the group to think both concretely (i.e. to delve into how the idea might work) and abstractly (i.e. to develop agreement around the broader principle in question).
Celebrate progress towards a final agreement.
The sooner an agreement is reached, the better for everyone, right? This means that the process has been efficient, that everyone is satisfied with the objective achieved and, in addition, it saves us from having more meetings. The lack of consensus and the lack of progress has an impact on the loss of group time, which means that, in order to avoid wasting time without optimal results, the majority proposal is accepted, without raising inconveniences or disagreements.
To avoid sticking with the first decision that half-convinces team members just to gain that false sense of efficiency, HBR experts recommend celebrating the small steps we make towards common consensus, even if that means deferring and pointing out disagreements with others. Despite a lack of final agreement, acknowledging moments of progress can help maintain team morale and momentum.
In conclusion, groupthink is a phenomenon that can negatively affect decision-making, as it is based on social pressure and conformity rather than considering different perspectives and options. To avoid this, it is important to foster an environment where open discussion, constructive debate and challenging the status quo is encouraged. By maintaining an open and non-conformist approach, we can avoid its negative effects and make more informed and rational decisions.