Leading a Cohesive Team Past Groupthink

So many examples of poor decisions can be traced back groupthinkto groupthink. From the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Bay of Pigs and the Challenger disaster—each of those infamous moments in history could have been avoided if special attention was devoted to preventing groupthink.

Much of the research on the topic was developed by Irving Janis, who defined groupthink as “…a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Many leaders work hard to create group cohesiveness and find people with similar backgrounds and personality types in order to reduce conflict. The unfortunate consequence of that effort is that groupthink will interfere with the ability to explore alternatives, examine thought processes, challenge assumptions, question power, and be open to new ideas.

According to Janis, groupthink results in:

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selection bias in collecting information
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

As a leader, you can take important steps to avoid groupthink in your organization. For example, you need to lay important ground work in your organization to support a culture of critical thinking. This will take considerable time and energy, but the results will pay off in the end. By creating a culture of critical thinking, you give everyone in the organization permission to ask questions, question assumptions, ask for data, and validate sources. In so many organizations, just asking questions is seen as insubordination. Those organizations are breeding grounds for groupthink.

Next, as a leader, try to withhold your opinion on a topic until the team is able to research options and alternatives and report back. Once a leader weighs in on a topic, the team is much more likely to seek out information that supports the leader’s opinion. Give time and space for objective data to be collected before you share your personal perspective.

Another effective technique for avoiding groupthink is to bring in outsiders to weigh in on the topic. This can be done by having two separate teams work independently, yet simultaneously, on a project or by bringing in subject matter experts for discussion. People outside of a cohesive team are less likely to be influenced by groupthink, and will likely evaluate alternatives in a unique way in order to arrive at different conclusions. Of course, it’s important to truly listen to that outsider even when their perspective differs from the entire group. Remember, you brought that person in for a reason.

Finally, if outside subject matter experts cannot be included in discussions, assign one team member the role of Devil’s Advocate. This person should ask tough questions, force discussion on unstated assumptions, and give meaningful attention to alternative ideas and conclusions. By placing someone in the Devil’s Advocate role, you’re giving one team member freedom to ask unpopular questions. Those questions may uncover significant areas of groupthink that would have otherwise gone unrecognized.

In the end, it is possible to have a team that both operates cohesively and makes strong decisions. The responsibility truly rests on leaders to ensure that critical thinking is not only valued in their organization but required of all team members. It takes effort and conscious thought to avoid the trap of groupthink, but the result of the hard work will be improved decision making, problem solving, and innovation.