When you are part of a group, do you often avoid speaking up or voicing your opinion simply because you did not want to appear unsupportive? Do you end up relying more on your group decision-making capabilities rather than consider individual opinions? If you do, then probably, you are a victim of groupthink. Groupthink is important for an amicable and collaborative work environment. However, it is also equally true that our decisions becomes biased when in a group, where there is pressure to conform.
And if you are of the notion that more the brains, the better it is in decision making, then you probably might be wrong. Although there are benefits of working in groups when it comes to improving collaboration and communication, it also has several drawbacks when it comes to making important decisions. People tend to prioritise popularity over personal responsibility or independent thinking in group decision-making. This tendency to conform to ideas and beliefs of others can lead to ignoring potential signs of failure in planning and end up making decisions with incomplete and biased information.
When all think alike, then no one is thinking. — Walter LippmanTweet
When group consensus drives decision-making instead of fresh perspectives and constructive disagreements, it is easy to give into assumptions. Whether groupthink is part of your workplace/business or an organisational culture, it is important to know what gives rise to such a mindset and how to recognise when people are indulging in groupthink. Understanding what leads to it will enable you to recognise and deal with specific behaviours of people pertaining to it.
What is groupthink?
Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when group consensus takes priority over individual opinions or beliefs. It is driven by a desire for conformity and any information that contradicts the wisdom of the group is either excluded or dismissed as not important. The term was originally coined by Psychologist Irving Janis and in his research, he found that the reason behind a team’s poor decision making is mainly because of lack of conflict or opposing view points. This is because when alternatives were not fully analysed and because team members did not gather enough information to make well-informed decisions.
It is rather a quick and easy way to make decisions where a person relies heavily on majority viewpoint and holds him or herself back from critiquing or expressing an unpopular opinion. This is to say, when in group, if someone proposes an idea that you think is not good, but everyone else is in the group agrees with the suggested idea and seems to set on pursuing it, instead of voicing your opinion, you just go along with the majority opinion.
Groupthink in turn guides everyone’s actions and beliefs, presses on conformity over critical thinking, makes popularity seems more relevant than the need for validation, rather than to explore alternative perspectives.
Cause and effect
The fear of conflict or disagreement
Fear of conflict or disagreement can make certain people to avoid criticism. This may further make them to rationalise themselves into accepting other’s ideas, decisions or courses of action even when they don’t entirely believe in them. Even if they do believe in an idea or a project, they might forego it for the fear of undermining someone’s authority. This results in conforming to group’s ideas because disagreeing might upset the group.
However, trying to evade conflict leads to poor decision-making as opposed to engaging in constructive disagreements or entertaining difference of opinion. Everyone nodding to the most popular and agreeable solution may result in not considering divergent views or competing alternatives.
Biases and assumptions
When people tend to become fixed in their mindset, they let what they believe define their identity and conform to rigid beliefs or ideas. Fixed mindsets make people prone to biases like confirmation bias and consensus bias. Such biases lead us to make only those choices that align with our belief system and ignore any evidence otherwise. When in a group, biased thinking and beliefs makes people support those ideas that are in line with what they believe is true while disregarding anything that challenges them.
This makes people believe that their decision is the best and that everyone is in conformity even when they are not creating an illusion of unanimity. Decisions thus made with biased mindset will often be limited where critical thinking takes a back seat and the group gives into a biased decision.
Need for psychological safety
When there are situational factors like extreme stress, moral dilemmas or need for difficult decisions, many people engage in groupthink. For the need of safety, people don’t voice opinions and they feel it safer to conform rather than to speak their mind or share their ideas. Vulnerability of making mistakes or when people think they lack personal knowledge of something or feel that other members are more qualified, they are more likely to engage in groupthink.
Such instances often make them avoid voicing their opinions, insights or what they think is right.
Peer pressure and stress
Groupthink also happens when there is a strong persuasive leader or when there is an intense pressure from outside to make a quick decisions. So, the need to reach consensus, right or wrong, overcomes everything else. In these situations, people will want to reduce decisional stress and to do this, they try to agree quickly with little or no argument possible.
It is also possible that when some express opposing opinion or question the rationale behind a decision, the rest of the group work together to pressure or persuade them into compliance. Decisions then become based on consensus rather than considering different perspectives.
Closed leadership style
Leadership is the key factor in creating a genuinely collaborative teams or workforce. But certain individual leadership styles can more likely to give rise to groupthink. For instance, a directive leadership style or an authoritative approach where leaders are rigid in their views or a closed leadership style that doesn’t consider alternative views or courses of action leads to groupthink. Such leadership styles expect members to tow their views and exclude alternative views or strategies.
High degree of cohesiveness
The more the group cohesiveness and the more amiability, the greater is groupthink. This is the reason why the groupthink is much a challenge when it comes to teamwork. Team collaboration is of course very important and helps everyone to work towards a common shared goal. However, prioritising cohesiveness above everything else is what is conducive to groupthink. Even though groupthink is a desirable factor, when members become too friendly, it can be difficult for everyone to speak up their views for fear of offending each other.
Groupthink also occurs more in situations where group members are similar to one another. Or in other words, a group that’s more or less like a club, where people know each other very well, or friendly, and have similar choices, ideas and opinions give rise to groupthink. As a result people become more reliant on the wisdom of the group and grow certain that the group’s view on a particular issue is correct.
When there is strong similarity in their choices, members tend to perceive their decisions as correct or disapprove opinions of those outside of the group. They find it harder to bring new perspectives or information and become progressively less effective at exploring alternative solutions.
How it affects decision making negatively
Many go with the most popular opinion and think that groupthink is a sign of teamwork as it implies that everyone has to reach consensus and that everyone must agree to a group decision. And it is often considered wrong and disrespectful to disagree with experts or otherwise highly regarded people in the organisation. Some leaders don’t want to be disapproved and so if anyone does, they might put pressure on them to change their mind. This results in non-inclusivity, withholding information, opinions, or ideas that might cause problems or challenge the authority of those higher up in hierarchy.
Loss of creativity and challenge.
Similarly, when a group makes morality as a basis for their decisions, the pressure to conform is even more because no one wants to be perceived otherwise. Homogeneity creates pressure to conform as people don’t like to stand alone or feel isolated. The more influence they have on each other, and the more personal interaction, the more likely they are to ignore creative or independent thinking. When a group reaches a decision without considering outside perspectives, or where the popularity overshadows independent views, it gives rise to collective blindness or to regressive thinking especially, if it requires taking a hard stance.
The suppression of individual opinions and creative thought can lead to inefficient problem solving. When a group convinces themselves that the decisions they made or the alternatives they are considering are the best ones, it creates an illusion if invulnerability. Groupthink leads to a tendency to rationalise away counter arguments to the popular solution and a belief that an argument against it is not helpful. This means that ‘in-group’ overestimates it’s own expertise and underestimates the abilities of other people. It also leads to undermine the potential contribution of those outside the group.
Lack of critical thinking
Groupthink also leads to lack of critical thinking and make everyone assume that if everyone agrees to a decision, it must be right. As a result, people agree too quickly and aren’t critical of ideas or don’t challenge the decisions so made in a group. Many people think of them as a means to align and disregard other critical ideas or information that are truly effective. Unquestioned beliefs lead to ignoring possible problems and the consequences of the decisions so taken.
Related read: How to improve your critical thinking
Groupthink results in unproductive group meetings where decisions thus made miss out an outside perspective. It may feel great to step out of the meeting without conflicts, where points confirm our original conclusion and everyone agrees, but without hearing different perspectives, encouraging others to question our assumptions, consider their viewpoints and gain clarity on why others agree with what we believe, we can’t really make informed decisions. This also means that members may not assess the potential risks and benefits of a decision.
It causes people to censor their opinions in order to conform. Rather than sharing what they know, they might even censor the information gathered and assume that the group knows better. Instead of sharing important information, they share only that which confirms the chosen group decision. This leads to fake unanimity leading to believe that everyone is in agreement and feels the same way. It may cause complacency to think that their ideas are exceptional and that they are mostly right, leading to over optimism.
After a few successes, the group begins to feel like any decision they make is the right one because there is no disagreement from anyone. Groupthink leads members to perceive that their group is inherently moral or right. Such stereotyped beliefs can create biased sense of rightness. This stereotypes people or ideas from outside the group and they begin to see outside opinions or perspectives as different and inferior from theirs. These are then used to discredit to opposing views, and ignore anything that might force them to reconsider their opinion, assumptions or take an alternative approach.
Some ways to minimise groupthink
Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.John.F.Kennedy
Group consensus can allow group to make decisions, but not effective. It ultimately leads to poor decisions and can have many negative consequences. However, it may not be a common phenomenon to all groups, but it can be a problem for teams that have a responsibility for developing ideas and make decisions. Identifying the possible signs and having a proper process in place to check groupthink can improve group decision making process.
- Instead of considering disagreements or viewing conflicts as negative, or as an attack on group’s intelligence or authority, consider them as a means to learn new information. Listen to people with dissenting opinions, validate your understanding and evaluate if risks are involved. Engage in sharing information and hearing different viewpoints without fear of conflict.
- Groupthink is less likely to happen when you are open to value different views as a leader. Sometimes individual voices get lost in large group meeting or formal settings. People may find it difficult to contribute freely or step up to hierarchy. Discussing in small independent groups is an effective way to consider individual opinions.
- Fixed mindset creates groupthink. That’s why it’s critical to be in a growth or an objective mindset when important decisions are made. Look for things that might not yet be known to the group. An outside perspective challenges confirmation and other biases.Teams with people from different backgrounds, expertise and experience offer diverse views and opinions.
- Be willing to speak up or put forward unconventional ideas that go against the established paradigms of the group. It is obvious that when you do so, criticism is inevitable. But often when you are dissatisfied with the decision, non-conformity is appropriate.
- Group members often fall into line with statements of the person who spoke first. So, one way to overcome this is to avoid stating your opinions or preferences initially when assigning tasks. Give others time to come up with their own ideas first. Encourage them to challenge and be critical of the proposed popular opinion or beliefs.
- Come up with easily accessible processes for people to submit ideas or raise concerns, and challenge things that are taken for granted. Avoid over reliance on best practice as this can obstruct independent thinking and innovation.
Questions to recognise groupthink
How many people actively speak up in your workplace meetings or in a group setting or discussions?
Does same set of people always raise their viewpoint? Do they always conform with the the most popular opinion as opposed to raising important points against it?
How often do you conform to a popular idea or a majority opinion of a group?
How do you react to information that challenges the most popular decision when in a group?
If you are leading or managing, how do you react to information that refutes your own opinion?
Do you mostly rely on groupthink or do you explore alternative paths and engage yourself in coming up with the best solution to a problem?
When in group, Do you give prominence to the most popular idea or do you entertain different alternatives?
Groupthink makes people conform instead of feeling empowered to deviate from common thinking. When it comes to group decision making, it is important to have a clear decision-making process in place that enables its people to avoid biases, think critically, contribute their ideas and learn from one another. Being on the look out for signs of groupthink allows you to implement these strategies to minimise it and thereby enable better group decision making.
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