How Groupthink Can Get You

September 10, 2018

How Groupthink Can Get You

In the last post, you wanted to generate out-of-the-box ideas but were shot down. You left the meeting feeling vaguely bad, perhaps because your idea never got off the ground. Perhaps, but a much more powerful force had probably doomed your idea from the start: Groupthink.

What is groupthink?

Groupthink is the tendency of a group to hold the same opinions and views. Sometimes that’s good. For something straightforward, it’s very helpful to coalesce quickly around the task. But this technique is primarily about efficiency—completing the task using the fewest resources in the least time. Unfortunately, organizations are addicted to groupthink and apply it indiscriminately. In our example, the group was aiming for effectiveness—the right solution—not one generated in record time with the fewest people thinking.

Did you have a better idea?

You may not have, but the key thing is it was never seriously considered. Maybe the Executive Committee really is looking for radical solutions or wants a way into new technology. Because nobody knew exactly what was wanted, a better approach would have been to float both ideas. Why didn’t this happen?

Groupthink narrows the options

Jeff, perhaps unconsciously but certainly cleverly, uses what researchers have found to be common in groupthink.

Confirmation bias. Jeff started by stating everyone supported his view. But if so, why hold the meeting? Jeff got the group to focus only on information he declared true. It spent its time elaborating the accepted idea rather than challenging the information or suggesting new options.

Information cascade. Everyone (but Max) actively agreed with Jeff. The widespread agreement increased the idea’s legitimacy and decreased the desire to consider other solutions. You found that out when your idea was called a pipe dream. The group censored thinking which challenged what they already believed, even distorting the President’s words to favor their idea (i.e. protecting jobs).

Inducing doubt. You yourself demonstrated a common phenomenon. You began to doubt whether you were right because of the opposition and/or because Jeff, a more powerful figure, supported his option.

Result of effective groupthink

You didn’t vote what you really thought. Which can be an issue in and of itself. But in addition, groupthink can seriously affect the quality of the work so that groups wanting to be innovative tend instead towards the status quo and protecting vested interests.

This dysfunctional way of operating can many forms. More information is available in James Surowiecki’s  The Wisdom of Crowds. How to deal with it is my next post.

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