Great minds may think alike, but if your company’s employees always share the same opinion, your decision making and critical thinking abilities can suffer. Groupthink is a phenomenon that can spread throughout your organization and hold your employees back from making decisions that could steer you away from mistakes or propel you forward.

What is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a term first coined by social psychologist Irving L. Janis in 1972. It centers around the fact that people will strive for consensus within a group, even setting aside their own personal beliefs to adopt the opinion of the rest of the group, according to Very Well Mind. Those people who don’t agree with the rest of the group remain quiet so as not to disrupt the peace. Think of groupthink as going along with everyone else because it is easier than being contrary. The Abilene Paradox further explains this theory.

What is the Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox was coined by Professor Jerry B. Harvey in his book, “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.” It is best explained by a parable of a family who all agree to take an uncomfortable trip that no one really wants to go on.

The family was spending a hot afternoon in Texas playing dominoes when one suggests they take a trip to Abilene for dinner. Everyone has reservations but they all not only agree to go, but they also say it sounds like a great idea. The trip is terrible; the drive is long and hot and the food is bad. They return home four hours later and one exclaims that it was a great trip. It is then that each admits they didn’t want to go but only said yes to satisfy the group. The one who suggested the trip only did so because he thought everyone was bored. The group is perplexed that each decided to take a trip none wanted.

According to Psychology Today, there are differences between groupthink and the Abilene paradox. In groupthink, the collective individuals actually agree with each other, both privately and collectively. In the Abilene paradox, the members privately disagree with the collective unanimous decision.

Groupthink Symptoms and Signs

Understanding the symptoms of groupthink can help employers identify if the company is suffering from it. Symptoms include a sense of invulnerability that leads to overconfidence and the rationalization of problems that explain away any threats to success, according to the Small Business Chronicle. Actions are seen as part of the greater good and any opponents to the group are stereotyped as unintelligent. Other symptoms include a feeling of unanimity, self-censorship and blocking criticism of others.

There are a number of causes why groupthink might sink into your company culture. According to Very Well Mind, these include:

  • Lack of diversity. Groupthink occurs more often in groups that have similar members. A strong group identity tends to have members who perceive their group as superior and anyone not in the group is an outsider.
  • Strong leadership. A charismatic leader can easily influence a group, allowing groupthink to take place.
  • Lack of information. If members of the group don’t have enough knowledge about decisions or feel other members or more qualified, they are more likely to engage in groupthink.
  • Stress. Stress causes people to accept what everyone else thinks just to come to a consensus and alleviate the pressure.

According to Indeed, recognizing groupthink in your company requires looking at some of its signs.

  • Complacency. Team members who are uninterested or disengaged may not care about resolving issues to share their opinion. Yet, they will still go along with the popular group decision. Disengaged employees rarely offer any feedback in meetings, positive or negative.
  • Uniformity. Employees who all have the same background and life experience share the same viewpoints that contribute to groupthink. Diverse team members offer new ideas and opinions, breaking groupthink and providing innovation.
  • Fear. Employees who work in a climate of fear are less likely to share their opinions. Fear of being fired or disciplined also contributes to employees’ unwillingness to share their thoughts and ideas. Body language needs to be observed to gauge apprehension.
  • Intimidation. Leaders who intimidate their employees and come into meetings with a know-it-all attitude can contribute to groupthink. Employees who think their ideas will be rejected won’t share their opinion.

Examples of Groupthink

One of the most well-known examples of groupthink, with dire consequences, is the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. The NASA orbiter blew apart about 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1986, killing all seven astronauts on board. Prior to lift off, engineers expressed concerns about the seals on the rock booster being able to work properly in frigid temperatures. Pressure to push the Challenger’s mission forward, even from the White House, and repeated delays, led the NASA team to adopt a groupthink mentality and push ahead with the mission, ignoring concerns and adopting a consensus no one agreed with.

An entrepreneurial example is the collapse of Swissair, a Swiss airline company that believed it was so financially stable it was known as the Flying Bank. The company believed it was invulnerable and its morality superior. The illusion of invulnerability led the company to underestimate the elements leading to its failure. Before it collapsed, Swissair reduced its board, losing its industrial expertise.

A hypothetical example that works for any company would be a nonproductive strategic planning meeting. A company suffering from groupthink won’t receive new ideas from the group. Any bad ideas, especially coming from the leader, will be agreed to, even if the employees think differently or have concerns. An ineffective planning session could derail your company from meeting goals that would allow it to innovate and grow.

How Groupthink Impacts your Company and Potential Pitfalls

As the examples above illustrate, groupthink leads to poor decision making. While this decision-making led to fatalities in the Challenger example, groupthink can cause companies to lose productivity, sales and even employees.

Environments that don’t allow employees to express their opinion leads to the inability to solve problems, assess risk and may even contribute to biases. Consider if you have a meeting about solving safety issues on a job site or manufacturing line and your employees are too disengaged to care or offer solutions. A solution suggested by a manager might be a bad idea or even unfeasible, slowing down production. And if that meeting shuts down dissenting opinions, employees who aren’t heard or are disengaged will likely find employment somewhere else.

While contention in the workplace isn’t necessarily a great thing, groupthink is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Groupthink doesn’t allow for differing opinions that can contribute to changing an idea to make it better.

According to Very Well Mind, groupthink can cause:

  • Blindness to potentially negative outcomes
  • Failure to listen to people with dissenting opinions
  • Lack of creativity
  • Lack of preparation to deal with negative outcomes
  • Ignoring important information
  • Inability to see other solutions
  • Not looking for things that might not yet be known to the group
  • Obedience to authority without question
  • Overconfidence in decisions
  • Resistance to new information or ideas

Tips and Tools to Overcome Groupthink in your Business

Overcoming groupthink can happen by changing the way business is conducted in the short- and long-term.

In the short term:

  • When possible, break meetings into smaller groups to encourage those who are reluctant to speak up.
  • Avoid starting meetings with an opinion or preference to give employees the opportunity to come up with their own ideas.
  • Specifically ask for dissenting opinions when an idea is presented or ask why it might not work.
  • Reward creativity and provide opportunities to share ideas.
  • Seek out employees who remain silent individually. Use performance reviews to ask employees how they really feel.
  • Hold a follow-up meeting before implementing a decision that could affect performance or goals.

In the long term:

  • Offer learning opportunities. A lack of tools or knowledge can make employees feel like they don’t have the expertise to offer differing opinions. Allowing employees to take classes or complete training through a learning management system, gives them 24/7 access to information that can help them improve their performance. A cloud-based LMS can hold an array of online tutorials, PowerPoints, videos, discussions, tests, quizzes and essays to help enhance the learning environment, keeping employees engaged and on task. Administrators of the module have access to configuration tools to set up specific rules, guidelines and more to create an original experience for them.
  • Hold regular performance reviews. Meeting with your employees on a regular basis to discuss performance, concerns and goals helps them become more productive but also provides essential feedback. Encourage employees to be open and honest. Let them know even negative comments are appreciated, as long that they are constructive. A performance management system can automate the process by providing real-time feedback alerts. And if your employees are struggling or becoming disengaged, a performance review can alert you to issues, giving you time to correct them or provide solutions.


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