Group Think (or Groupthink)

I’ve thought about writing on this topic a couple times and was reminded of it again when I read a great post called Group Think and Risky Shift. It’s worth reading, twice.

Let’s start with a definition, borrowed from Wikipedia:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people. It is the mode of thinking that happens when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.

Not all groups fall into groupthink, and often there are other dynamics at work – experience and inexperience, strong and weak relationships, personal agendas and distractions, need to conform to group expectations, tradition, and more. It’s not simple. In my experience there are always multiple factors that result in groups becoming some degree of dysfunctional.

Perhaps the most common, most dangerous symptom of groupthink is a group that desires or even requires consensus. It happens because most people believe that unanimous support is the best place to be for any decision, and because of a sense of “we’re all in this together”.  Those groups place enormous pressure on members that dissent or are just ambivalent about joining the group decision. Over time members grow less interested in dissent, it’s painful,and the alternative of joining the group decision feels positive and rewarding.

Isn’t unanimous support good? It is. It’s just not good to aim for that for every decision. It requires either coercing everyone into supporting the majority decision or a lot of negotiating or deal making to get everyone on board – neither is a good approach. If everyone agrees,good. If not, a majority vote carries. Aiming for unanimous support each time is ass covering, a reluctance to risk any individual criticism for a decision made.

I don’t know that its possible to avoid groupthink entirely, but you can test for it:

  • Have we honestly explored alternatives and documented them? Documenting is key, what was the group thinking?
  • Have we tested our solution outside the group? If we’ve made a good decision we should be able to explain it clearly and answer questions about why alternatives weren’t chosen.

Saying “groupthink” is pejorative. I’ve tried it, I don’t think it works. You have to change the culture by coming at it differently. Transparency is one way. Another is bringing in someone to coach the group on decision making. Another is to do it the right way for initiatives you own – reward the contrarians, try to get to the best solution even if it wasn’t yours.

Definitely a topic I need to think more about.

One thought on “Group Think (or Groupthink)

  1. Groups that have been working together for quite some time might naturally become more homogeneous, like a marriage, when both partners start thinking in sync. Definitely needs some “fresh wind” from a outside, then.


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