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GuidesResearch methodsWhat is groupthink, and how can it be avoided?

What is groupthink, and how can it be avoided?

Last updated

17 January 2024

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Whether you’re running a business, overseeing a department, exploring research, or leading a project, it’s important to have a deeper understanding of people and behaviors.

Authentic communication and dialogue are essential for reaching customers, motivating teams, and executing projects. Some scientific behavioral theories are present in everyday business environments. One of these concepts is groupthink.

This article aims to unravel groupthink, including its causes and repercussions. The more you know about how groupthink works and applies to business settings, the better prepared you can be to combat it. This can bring more balance and enable constructive feedback within your business, teams, and projects.

What is groupthink?

Groupthink refers to how individuals begin to accept the views and beliefs of the wider group they are a part of. In practice, it means individuals will align with the group’s beliefs even if they challenge their personal opinions.

The concept was officially defined in 1972 when social psychologist Irving L. Janis popularized it in his book Victims of Groupthink. Scientifically, it involves both sociological and psychological reactions, whereby individuals ignore their own opinions to favor those of the group.

Collective decision-making isn’t always a bad thing. However, collective decision-making in the context of groupthink can have toxic, undesirable consequences.

What is the opposite of groupthink?

Groupthink occurs when group members subscribe to too much social cohesion. It causes people to form a hive mind. The opposite of groupthink is a complete lack of group cohesion.

Groupthink vs. conformity

Groupthink isn’t the same as conformity, although both have similarities in business-related settings.

Conformity typically refers to the overarching cohesion of individuals looking to align with the group’s thinking. Conformity can be enforced positively. Think of a team wearing uniforms or employees following a company mission statement.

Groupthink, on the other hand, tends to be associated with more negative scenarios, like irrational managers or leaders influencing groups to do nonsensical things or follow flawed beliefs out of fear.

Here are some useful definitions:

  • Collaboration: team discourse and a healthy approach to decision-making to achieve a common, positive objective

  • Conformity: a group of individuals aligning their beliefs, activities, and work to support a common goal

  • Groupthink: a group of individuals following beliefs or decision-making that don’t align with their own beliefs or opinions out of complacency, fear, or blind trust

Groupthink characteristics

Group decision-making is common and often results in positive outcomes in business or project environments. In contrast, groupthink negatively impacts decisions and outcomes.

Learning how to spot groupthink characteristics within your group is paramount. The following scenarios tend to present more frequently when groupthink is at play:

Unreasonable rationalization

Teams or employees use rationalization to ignore their own individual beliefs in favor of adopting group consensus.

Rationalization is the mind’s attempt to justify or explain away a particular behavior or belief despite understanding that it may be wrong or flawed.

Individual self-censorship

Individuals might censor themselves, keeping quiet about their objections or concerns. This is usually driven by fear of ostracism, public disagreement, or reprimand, which can overpower a person’s confidence in speaking out in contradiction.

Too much self-censorship can eliminate healthy discourse and quickly lead to groupthink decision-making.

High stress among group members

It’s not uncommon for business challenges and high-pressure deadlines to introduce stress to your workplace or project. Stress becomes heightened when groupthink is in play, leading to even more irrational decision-making.

In many instances, when there is stress without a visible cause, it can be groupthink causing challenging situations. The internal, individual conflict of contradicting beliefs can be anxiety-inducing, which leads to more stress.

Individual complacency

When individuals subscribe to the group’s way of thinking, they often become more complacent within their roles. They train themselves to ignore their own beliefs in favor of the group’s beliefs, inhibiting their ability to contribute meaningfully.

If what they think doesn’t matter, everything else about their role starts to feel meaningless. In time, they will have blind trust in the group’s collective decision-making.

What causes groupthink?

Where does groupthink come from, and how can it infiltrate your employees and teams?

There’s a fine line between groupthink being inadvertent or intentional. However, it usually begins with one or more of the following causes and factors:

Charismatic and outspoken leadership

People are more likely to conform to one consensus when a strong-willed and charismatic leader dictates at the helm.

Of course, not every outspoken manager shuts down outside ideas or individual feedback. However, nearly every instance of groupthink involves a dominant leader who promotes ideas and expects the group to follow suit.

Reinforced group identity

Group identity can be healthy. For example, a team mentality can promote collaboration to help achieve specific goals. However, reinforced group identity—when members feel their participation is more important than their individual beliefs—is detrimental.

Groupthink keeps individuals from questioning behaviors or activities for fear of being branded a non-believer or detractor.

Presumed unanimity

People will assume that others in the group agree with the group’s wider thinking. This pressures them to avoid speaking up in the hope of preventing negative attention.

In a groupthink scenario, the individual fears not only the leader’s retaliation but also the judgment of others in the group who they assume subscribe to the group’s philosophy.

Zero tolerance for questioning

Groupthink takes over when there are no suggestions or room for questioning. Tasks and responsibilities are viewed as commands. The group’s or group leader’s beliefs are supported, regardless of their factual basis.

It occurs when there’s no such thing as productive debate or constructive criticism and when outside opinion typically results in negative consequences or hostile reactions.

Indirect and direct pressures

Groupthink can occur when individuals feel both direct and indirect pressure from the group or leader to remain silent. It can also cause stress and pressure, as individuals are conflicted about whether to follow their beliefs or subscribe to those of the wider group.

Signs of groupthink

Be mindful of the following signs that indicate groupthink might be creeping into your organization or project:

  • Increased willingness to take significant risks (invulnerability)

  • Group members carrying out tasks without question

  • Less consideration for the moral and ethical implications of decisions and actions

  • Team members acting as “mindguards” (those who act to prevent people in the group from accessing important information)

  • Silence is considered consent (illusion of unanimity)

  • Everyone agrees when you’d expect there to be objections

  • People outside of the group see the group’s decisions as irrational or short-sighted

  • Complex issues that normally take time to resolve are addressed rapidly, without discourse

Groupthink isn’t always easy to spot. Leaders often identify a groupthink problem in retrospect. However, being aware of groupthink and encouraging discourse can help you prevent it.

Impacts of groupthink

When groupthink has taken hold in your workplace or project, prohibiting thoughtful discussions, insightful feedback, and constructive collaboration, it leads to several negative consequences.

You’ll begin to notice the following:

  • Poor decision-making and inefficient problem-solving

  • Ignoring the risk of negative outcomes and being unprepared to deal with them

  • Being over-confident in decisions

  • Lack of creativity and innovation

  • Ignoring or not seeking important information

  • Team members obeying leaders’ instructions without question

  • People with different opinions being ignored

Can groupthink ever be a good thing?

Most of the effects of groupthink tend to be negative, but there are a few positives worth noting.

For example, groupthink can avoid “analysis paralysis,” another term for overthinking. It can also speed up decision-making.

However, it’s important to identify which elements of your business or project are non-negotiables, allowing debate for all other elements to remain productive without fully embracing groupthink practices.

When is groupthink dangerous?

Groupthink can also be dangerous when you consider how it takes hold in scenarios outside of the workplace. This risk is particularly evident in cults.

Any situation where individuals in a group subscribe blindly to the leader’s beliefs or instructions or those of the wider group is harmful. Groupthink can extend to situations where those behaviors and beliefs are extreme or dangerous.

In other cases, ill-judged decisions taken because of groupthink can lead to the following:

  • Poor health or eating disorders

  • Unwise career decisions or financial implications

  • Illegal or immoral behavior

  • Harm to the individual or other people

How to avoid groupthink

There are a few proactive steps you can take to help avoid groupthink within your team or project.

Psychologists have determined that by embracing the strategies below, you can keep your groups cohesive and collaborative in a healthy way:

  • Assign one or more members to be official “devil’s advocates.” Encourage them to dissent and speak up regardless of their personal beliefs to strengthen the group’s dialog and positioning.

  • Support open debates throughout your project or in your departments. Invite others within your project or team to share their opinions and ideas routinely.

  • Stick to an official format or structure for decision-making. This will help you avoid making rash choices without the proper time, consideration, and discussion needed.

  • Allocate everyone in the group time to speak, even if they agree or don’t have opposing views to share.

  • Break up your group into smaller micro-groups or pairs for brainstorming sessions and creative thinking exercises.

Examples of groupthink

Another way to familiarize yourself with what groupthink is and how it works is by looking outward. These examples range from quick, individual decisions to a collective series of decisions. They all represent the various levels of groupthink.

A nationwide business example

One of the most significant examples of groupthink in recent history is the housing and banking crash of 2008.

An entire industry of investors, advisors, real estate companies, and financial institutions followed the trends of the time blindly. It led to corporate complacency on a mass scale, with professionals at every level ignoring the impending signs of a collapse.

Groupthink outside of the business model

You can spot examples of groupthink across many social, economic, and government segments outside of the business model.

  • Religious cults and extremist organizations

  • The military

  • Ritual hazing in college sports

  • Politics and political party lines

Groupthink can be dangerous in business settings when company leaders encourage a blind following to support immoral or illegal activities.

You might see this among hiring managers who practice discrimination on their leader’s instructions. You might also see it at the entry level, where entire teams ignore signs of abuse, fraud, or ethics violations out of fear or complacency.

Groupthink on an individual level

While groupthink can lead to large-scale problems, it can also present itself in an individual’s everyday life with far less intense consequences.

For example, have you ever skipped class in college because your friends were skipping? You likely knew it was a poor decision but went along with the sentiments of the group. This decision didn’t cause the world to change or businesses to collapse, but it does define groupthink since you made a poor decision against your better judgment in favor of the group’s choice.

Groupthink depicted in movies

Groupthink is often the subject of Hollywood movies—in a more grandiose capacity, of course.

The Matrix is a great movie example of groupthink. While the storyline follows the concept of machines and technology ruling humanity, the plot is rooted in the lead character’s journey to break free of the groupthink mentality and embrace the truth.

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