Trapped in a groupthink

Have you heard about groupthink before? If you didn't, this blog post is for you - better to know such vicious enemy before you actually encounter him ... The most clear (& still concise) definition I've found goes like that:

"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."

src: https://www.psychologytoday.com

It's a psychological phenomenon that turns smart people into flock of apathetic, mindless drones - either afraid of expressing own initiative or convinced that it's not worthy. Groupthink is hard to beat as in many cases certain individuals (the most verbose) cherish it by forcing the assumption that majority is equal to unanimity.

In many cases groupthink is fueled by each participant's strong desire to belong ("buy into" / blend in) to the group & get fully accepted - at the price of abandoning his/her independent, personal opinion that could be uncomfortable or questionable for someone else (e.g. of higher status).

"Take your team off autopilot."

Ben Dattner Ph.D.

If all just follow, it's spinning in circles

Teams / groups affected by groupthink:

  • desperately avoid any confrontation / healthy debate
  • tend to mix / mistake facts with opinions (if opinions are internal)
  • force individuals to restrain themselves, because "majority of the group can't be wrong"
  • need tons of analysis, written documentation, signed approvals, etc. to make any decision against the common belief / leader's opinion
  • tend to stigmatize ones that drop out of line (e.g. push for a change, drive a decision)

"Crowds sometimes make poorer decisions than do individuals."

Adam Alter

Usually groupthink happens when ...

  1. work environment is pathologically (btw., ever heard of Westrum typology?) political & people are more concerned about the pecking order than the greatest benefit
  2. organization is not value-driven -> teams' action don't have clear commercial implications, so it doesn't really matter what / how they do, everything will be OK anyway ...
  3. work transparency does not exist or is severely flawed
  4. people (who would in other case oppose groupthink) are either burned out, lost their motivation, feel extremely insecure (due to whatever reason) or ... they simply suck big-time
  5. organization's culture strongly discourages diversity
  6. people are accustomed to very formal procedures / routines, but environment changes to more agile, so people feel lost about decision-making & just follow the ones who shout the loudest

Don't be like borg

Why do I write about that? To warn you all. Watching a group affected by groupthink is a terribly depressing experience ... :(

  • people conform to group's decisions (habitually), but don't feel co-responsible for them when there's a need to solve a problem, etc.
  • initiative, creativity, positive energy, urge to self-organize - forget about any of these as they give way to discouragement & disillusionment
  • substantive debate based on rational argumentation does not take place - whole solution can become grotesque if whole group submits to the will of a leader with outdated knowledge who became "content-free" without realizing ...
  • majority of those who realize they've fallen into groupthink suffer from victimship ("What can I do? It's the way it works here."), fueling passiveness with even more passiveness ...

How can you fight groupthink?

  1. by applying external, recognized expertise - someone out of current hierarchy will more likely acquire the necessary attention (and give a spur to people so they'll actually start thinking on their own again)
  2. by playing devil's advocate, applying 5 x Why practice, asking for refinement of key success criteria / metrics - on other words questioning what seems wrong, regardless of positions / ranks / hierarchies
  3. encouraging others to express their opinions & if these happen, treating them with appropriate respect
  4. building a habit of considering at least 2-3 alternatives (may be time-consuming, so shouldn't be applied in trivial cases) - as an option, can be done in sub-groups