How to Keep Groupthink From Silencing Good Ideas and Valid Concerns in the Workplace

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We’re all agreed then?

A number of years ago, I participated in a marketing focus group at a large corporation. Initially, as we discussed various product offerings, participants had both negative and positive contributions. Gradually, however, several dominant voices in the group enthusiastically (and unintentionally) overpowered the group with their glowing viewpoints. Encouraged by the even-more-enthusiastic moderator, those of us who had initially expressed misgivings were washed along in the sugary tide.

Businessman talking in meetingGroupthink happens when the individuals present stop challenging popular perspectives … a person’s desire to conform (or the pressure to conform) overrides the desire to find the best possible solution. Individuals may feel uncomfortable contributing thoughts, ideas and objections outside the norm. Or the group has become so homogenous (or was intentionally built that way), that members share thinking patterns and are likely to explain threats away. And while this behavior might help you reach a more speedy consensus, this narrowed thinking often weakens innovation and leads to decisions that aren’t well evaluated.

And, unfortunately groupthink isn’t reserved for focus groups. It happens on work teams as well. It also happens in workplace settings where participants have unequal rank or where the group leader punishes (however inadvertently) any dissent.

GroupthinkWe look to groups because we know that more minds bring more ideas … and that individual decision making can be flawed by biases: Self-interest, limited knowledge or time, fear of failure and a multitude of other biases, suggests (Read more about biases: NST Insights.) In an effort to eliminate these biases and generate more ideas, big decisions are often made by groups. But ensuring that individuals continue to think independently and contribute without pressure is critical to good group decision making.

Let’s take a look at some of the causes of groupthink, as noted by

  • GettyImages-503081960cropThe group is very cohesive, i.e., everyone has similar backgrounds. “Being with similar people serves a very basic psychological need to belong and feel comfortable,” says Evan Apfelbaum, a W. Maurice Young Assistant Professor of Organization Studies at the MIT School of Management. There is obvious value in this. But there may be a trade-off: These comfortable environments, where we’re surrounded by people like ourselves, may not be the ones that produce the most accurate judgments.
  • The group considers only a few options
  • Members of the group self-censor … keeping questions and concerns to themselves
  • The group is insulated from information coming from outside sources
  • There is great time pressure, producing heightened stress
  • The group is dominated by a very directive or intimidating leader

Here are some ways to prevent groupthink:

  1. Remind each member to evaluate alternatives for risks and drawbacks
  2. The leader should avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset
  3. Group members should routinely discuss progress with a trusted outside associate and report the associate’s reactions
  4. Establish a template for discussing and evaluating options and making decisions
  5. Invite one or more experts to an occasional meeting. Encourage them to challenge the views of the group.
  6. Stimulate ideas by meeting off-site occasionally
  7. Designate a devil’s advocate to question assumptions and plans
  8. Set aside time to consider obstacles and competitor’s moves, and make a contingency plan

Groupthink word cloudFor the best decisions and more innovative ideas, try to prevent groupthink in the workplace. Encourage individual thinking and contributions. Create an environment where alternatives are carefully considered, challenged and appraised … where disagreement is expected. These measures will help ensure the best possible solutions aren’t overlooked or discarded.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.