Published on 30 March 2017

So you have assembled (or work in) a team that is highly cohesive, work well together, understand each other, and work well on getting tasks done and projects delivered. You are, (or have) a manager who is open and approachable. Most in the team come from a similar background, and decisions are often made via discussion within that group. The team may even have a bit of a "fortress mentality" in terms of looking after each other. Sounds good right?

It is a breeding ground for Groupthink - 1984 style.

There is a book written in the 1972 called "Victims of Groupthink" by Irving L Janis, which looks at this, and the dangers. There are famous examples of the problems of groupthink from both before and after 1972 including

  • The Bay of Pigs invasion
  • Almost going to war over the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • The Challenger (Space Shuttle) disaster
  • The decision to invade Iraq after 9/11

In a corporate environment, especially in a fast moving world as IT tends to be, groupthink is a particular problem. If you are in IT, in a team like I describe above, you are at real risk of falling into it.

What are the Symptoms?

So if you are in a Groupthink situation, you may not know. You are unlikely to believe an external party telling you, so you should look at your group/team, check for similar background, coherence levels, similar backgrounds, etc., and then consider the eight major symptoms. If you are in a team that is at risk, and you can identity, after looking honestly, even five or six of the following, you may have a problem:

  • Illusion of Invulnerability - The group believe they can "do no wrong"
  • Collective rationalisation - All decisions are made by the group, but can be unbalanced because of restricted information
  • Belief in inherent morality - The group believe they are "right" or "doing the right thing"
  • Stereotyped views of out-groups - Poor or negative opinion of other groups, even other groups within the same department, unless those groups have been willingly brought into the fold, in-which case they may not count as outsiders, even if they are external
  • Direct pressure on dissenters - Pressure to stay "on message" with the wider group view
  • Self-censorship - People choose to stay silent rather than voice doubts
  • Illusion of unanimity - An assumption that majority views are actually held by everyone in the group
  • Self-appointed "mind-guards" -Members who are very vocal and protective of the group, and it's decisions and perceived opinions.

As mentioned above though, seeing this in your own group may be difficult, and if groupthink is a problem, you are unlikely to accept the viewpoint of someone outside the group telling you that it is.

How to Deal with Groupthink

Regardless of whether you recognise groupthink in your group/team or not, there are steps that you should be taking, in order to mitigate it. These are:

  • Give people more autonomy to complete their tasks. As a leader you should be more concerned that they get done, rather than the specifics of how
  • Consult and interact, externally and often. This can be in meetings, but should also be routinely done outside meetings, by running ideas and decisions by people outside the group, who have a similar understanding of the issues
  • Encourage a devil's advocate. This isn't someone who is automatically negative, and looking at just the reasons why something cannot be done, but questioning whether the decision is the correct one from a logic based approach
  • Where there are no conflicting or views expressed within the group, seek out those opinions from outside the group and ensure they are discussed constructively.
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