The Cost of Conformity & 3 Ways to Avoid Group Think

The attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bay of Pigs, the Watergate Scandal, the demise of Swiss Air, the global expansion strategy of British Airways, and the GM Cobalt ignition switch failure/recall. What do these events, spanning decades, all have in common?

According to many experts, these events resulted – at least in part – from “groupthink”. Groupthink is a term coined by William H. Whyte, Jr. in 1952 in Fortune magazine, with much of the early research on groupthink being done by Irving Janis.

What is Groupthink?

According to Psychology Today, “Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.” 

While there is a lack of agreement among experts on all of the factors that lead to groupthink, here are some examples that you may recognize:

  • The leader makes a suggestion and all team members jump to agreement – or at least fail to express disagreement – without exploring assumptions, looking at potential barriers to implementation or identifying potential unintended consequences.
  • The leadership of an organization has a sense of invincibility or an unrealistic belief that “we can’t fail” that often results from a series of past successes. Therefore they neglect to test assumptions or seek outside input on a plan.
  • One person on a team questions part of a plan and is swiftly shot down by other team members without even considering his or her point of view.

Regardless of the cause of groupthink there are things you can do to safeguard your team from the effect.

  1. Encourage Diversity of Perspective. Research indicates that teams with diversity of perspective perform better. Assemble a diverse team and seek out each team member’s perspective. As the leader, share your perspective last. Here is what seeking out diversity of perspective does not look like.Leader: “Here’s what I think we should do. Everyone’s on board, right? Great then we can move on to the next topic.”This may be a bit of an exaggeration but not much and I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar at some point in your career.
  2. Assign a Devil’s Advocate. For every solution you develop, proposed idea or plan of action, assign someone to play the role of devil’s advocate. It is this person’s responsibility to argue against the proposed solution, idea or plan in order to test the strength of what is being proposed. The role should be rotated among team members. It is important to remember that the person playing the role is doing what they have been asked to do and not being a continuous, contrary naysayer.
  3. Conduct a Pre-mortem. You are probably familiar with post-mortems which are typically conducted at the end of a project or event to assess what went wrong, how the things that went wrong could have been avoided, and how to assure they don’t happen in the future. A pre-mortem is conducted before the project or plan is implemented. Team members are asked to imagine a time in the future when the plan has been (or is being) implemented and it is not successful. Then ask them, “What went wrong?” This helps team members share concerns or potential problems in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

Would you like to explore more ways to create diversity of perspective on your team, encourage team members to engage in healthy dialogue and debate, and avoid the dangers of group think?

I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you and see if our Leadership Team Development Program might be a fit for you and your team. Call me at 972-701-9311 or email me at today. I look forward to chatting with you.

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POSTED ON: Strategy and Vision