Groupthink is what happens when the desire to have harmony and consensus discourages healthy dissent during the decision-making process. In other words, when individuals fear rocking the boat, they don’t voice their disagreement – even if they know they should. The results can be disastrous.
Consider the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. All are examples of groupthink at its worst. The phenomenon is also common in the business world, and has undone many successful companies.
Too much conformity clouds the decision-making process and offers only a one-sided perspective to issues that require complex consideration. Here’s how groupthink hurts businesses.
1. The loudest, not the best, decisions win
In group meetings, often those with the loudest and strongest voices get their way. More reserved employees don’t speak up as much. Teams usually pick decisions communicated the boldest and most passionately. Unfortunately, the loudest decisions aren’t always the best decisions.
2. Consensus masks apathy
Sometimes employees go along just to get along. They may not care about the issue at hand at all, but agree to a decision to end the meeting, or because they believe their input won’t make a difference. With little resistance, leaders can easily push through decisions. On the surface, these decisions appear unanimous, but they should give business leaders pause. Why aren’t your employees contributing fully to discussions? If they don’t care about the decision-making process, they may not be invested in your company’s growth or success. And that can show up in their performance or customer service.
3. Groupthink leads to blame
When employees feel pressure for consensus, no one individual feels that they own the decision. If it fails, “It’s not my fault,” and the finger-pointing begins. That’s what happened to a business leader I advised, a strong, persuasive individual. He had launched a program to improve employee morale, and believed he had everyone’s support, despite seeking little input from his executive team. But when the initiative failed, his employees quickly blamed him for its failure, and morale sunk to new depths. The episode generated mistrust and ill will that was hard to overcome.
Is your company vulnerable to groupthink?
To find out, use your eyes, ears and your gut to assess your team’s current level of engagement and morale. Here are some warning signs to take into consideration.
1. Recent success
Everything is going great, maybe too great. Your team might be afraid to float new ideas or initiatives that could threaten the status quo and result in failure. Complacency is a common side effect of groupthink, and can significantly stall your company’s growth.
2. Lack of diversity
Scan the room at your next meeting. If everyone in the room shares the same experience and background, that should raise a red flag. Who’s missing? For example, it would be a mistake to leave millennials out of key decisions just because they don’t have as much experience as more seasoned employees. By excluding others with different viewpoints, there’s a danger you’re closing yourself off to new ideas and becoming safer – too safe.
3. A climate of fear
Do your employees seem comfortable with each other? Are meetings collaborative affairs, in which employees smile and make frequent eye contact with each other? Or do they clam up and barely look up from their phones when decision time comes? Employees won’t share their ideas if they’re afraid they will be disciplined, or even lose their jobs, by expressing opinions counter to the mainstream company dogma.
4. An intimidating leader
It’s true that business leaders should project confidence in their abilities to succeed. But acting like you know it all will only shut down alternative points of view. Are you ever vulnerable and open to discussion, or do you feel the need to be right at all costs?
How to discourage groupthink
The habit of groupthink can be hard to break, but with these strategies, you can loosen its stranglehold on your company.
Create a sharing environment
Smart business leaders take care to cultivate a company culture of support and trust that welcomes ideas of all types. To do that, make sure your decision-making process does the following:
- Includes participation from all employees involved in the decision
- Introduces alternative viewpoints for discussion
- Rewards employees for vocalizing opinions outside the norm
- Examines the risks and benefits of more than one option or plan
- Encourages constructive dissent as a healthy part of the discussion
- Analyzes information objectively
- Includes information from outside sources when necessary, for additional objectivity
- Shows the team that the leader can be vulnerable and may not always have the best answers
Assess your communication style
If you typically make decisions in a group setting with louder people having the most input, and notice others aren’t speaking up, offer to engage them separately in a one-on-one meeting. Showing that you value different communication styles speaks volumes to employees, and encourages them to open up.
Embrace your inner contrarian
For clarity on a decision, a leader should be able to argue both sides. Test the group. If they’re swimming one way, see what they think of the opposite point of view. Don’t be afraid to explore alternatives, and for the discussion to become heated. A little conflict can help reveal pros and cons that otherwise might be ignored.
Stay the course
To keep groupthink at bay in the future, continue to question assumptions, reward out-of-the-box ideas, and make sure your team stays hungry for progress, even after you’ve had a taste at success. These tactics will help your team meet challenges with open minds and avoid making bad decisions.
For more tips, download our free e-book, How to Develop a Top Notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.