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What is Groupthink?

What is Groupthink?

Although it is a relatively new phenomenon in teams, and mostly attributed to the research work of Irving Janis at Yale University in the early 1970’s, Groupthink has become a significant concern to any people who operate a team situation. Groupthink occurs in organizations and teams which do not have high levels of healthy or constructive conflict. In other words, this is not destructive conflict but conflict in terms of ideas, how to achieve goals and when resources need to be changed or re-aligned. A team is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, experience or attitudes and when the group is particularly protected or insulated from external opinions.

In organizations with high levels of Groupthink, morale may be high, and people back each other up. To all external appearances, such groups and organizations appear to be highly effective, and also pleasant to work with. Strangely enough, however, such groups can often make bad decisions. This is because members feel that they should not speak out when they know something is actually or potentially wrong or “off” in some way: they shut up when they should speak out.

The Groupthink phenomenon has eight specific symptoms (according to Janis). These are shown in the table below together with some examples.

GROUPTHINK SYMPTOM EXPLANATION EXAMPLES S=Speech T=Thought
1. Illusion of Invulnerability The team or group believes it is invulnerable, which leads to excessive optimism and risk-taking (S) “We’re the best in the business!
(S) “Nothing can stop us now!”
2. Rationalization Group members rationalize away external warnings or threats (S) “I can’t believe this memo from Quality about the state of maintenance, we spend a fortune on that stuff”.
(T) “That student has to be wrong –that lecturer couldn’t possibly harass anyone”.
3. Belief in Inherent Morality or “Rightness” Group/team members believe that their decisions are inherently moral, brushing away thoughts of unethical behavior (S) “How could we do anything wrong?”
(T) “I’m a good person. I wouldn’t do anything to harm anyone else
4. Stereotyping Opponents of the group or team are stereotyped as being too evil, stupid or weak to take seriously (S) “Those reporters are just ambulance chasers. There’s no story for them here, it’s just that they’re too stupid to see it”.
(S) “That firm is pathetic – their products are just garbage compared to ours!”
5. Direct Pressure Anyone foolhardy enough to question the status quo within the group/team has direct pressure applied to conform (S) “You’re not going to rock the boat on this, are you Marty?”  “Just edit out the contradictory results – this is due in today!
6. Self-censorship Group/team members with doubts censor themselves to preserve the appearance of consent (T) “No-one else seems to be worried about this at all – I’d better shut up, or else I’ll look like a fool”.
7. Illusion of Unanimity Because silence is interpreted as consent, there is an illusion of unanimity (S) “OK, I think we need to move on to the next item. We’re all agreed on this, aren’t we?
(T) “Just shut up – don’t be a stirrer”.
8. Mind-guards Just as bodyguards protect us from physical harm, so some people set themselves as mind­-guards, censors or gatekeepers in order to prevent challenging or threatening information available outside the team/group from appearing before the group (T) “This report doesn’t look good at all. But it may not mean much. If I bring it along to the meeting, we might have to hold up everything while we check it out. File and forget, I think”.

This above table is a useful diagnostic tool to use to guard against Groupthink. If one or more team members feel that any of the above is occurring, then the person should ideally discuss the situation with the team leader so that steps can be taken to change things for the better. This may not be a quick change however. Groupthink may be deep in the team’s way of doing things and it may take some months to change thinking and decision-making practices. In reality, changes making personnel changes to the team or actually disbanding it are often quicker routes to healthier practices.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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