Have you ever been in a work meeting when a leader has proposed a course of action and everyone agrees fairly quickly? In such a situation, some of the more out-spoken colleagues immediately and enthusiastically show support – sincerely or not. But maybe some people look unsure or uncomfortable, yet hesitant to voice doubts. Perhaps more reserved employees remain quiet entirely.
The main thing is, no one asks follow-up questions, raises thoughtful objections, explores other facets of an issue or plays devil’s advocate. This is an example of groupthink in the workplace.
Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which people make largely unanimous and unquestioning decisions for a variety of reasons:
- Avoidance of disagreement and conflict
- The desire to maintain the status quo
- The pull to conform with others
- The fear of looking ignorant or wrong
- Sense of loyalty to one’s manager or colleagues, along with the perceived obligation to avoid making them look bad by contradicting them
- The pressure to make a decision within a short timeframe or in accordance with the wishes of a higher authority
- Belief that one’s own input won’t make much of a difference
- Lack of employee engagement with the decision-making process
- Insulation from opposing sources of information
The presence of any of these factors can cause critical evaluation, thoughtful discussion or healthy dissent to be overridden in favor of harmony and conformity.
After all, it can seem more convenient and safer to just go with the flow and not rock the boat. However, many times the result can be less-than-optimal or even very poor business decisions.
How groupthink happens
It can occur when an organization’s people lack the strategies and tools to manage conflict effectively, whether that entails policies, procedures, reporting structures or training. When poor conflict management exists, unfortunately, challenging ideas may be misconstrued as challenging people. Those who feel they are being challenged can take personal offense and tempers can flare. Most have a natural tendency to want to avoid these awkward or unpleasant encounters with others at work.
Groupthink can also be a symptom of a negative workplace culture in which people:
- Don’t feel included
- Don’t feel comfortable speaking up to disagree with or challenge ideas – especially to a manager
- Do feel pressured or coerced to think a certain way
In some situations, colleagues may genuinely think the same way about a topic because it’s a more homogeneous workforce – everyone has similar life experiences and perspectives. However, this can lead to blind spots – the overlooking of critical insights that colleagues with different backgrounds could otherwise provide. This is also why diversity in leadership is especially important, considering it’s the level where consequential decisions are made.
Most often, groupthink is unconscious and unintentional.
The warning signs of groupthink
Since groupthink is usually unconscious and unintentional, it can be hard to figure out whether it’s present in your organization.
Yet, there are common warning signs, and here are some proven ways to spot them:
- Observe employees’ behavior:
- How well do people collaborate?
- Does anyone disagree when ideas are discussed?
- Does anyone ask questions or raise valid concerns?
- Do people seem fearful or under stress?
- In which scenarios does healthy dissent happen versus not happen?
- Which types of employees are speaking up the most?
- Is the reaction to challenges mostly negative or positive?
- Listen. If you’ve heard people around you saying, “This has been working well for a long time and we don’t need to change,” that’s a red flag for groupthink. People who adhere to this mindset tend to believe there’s only one way of doing things. If several people say this, it indicates a widespread unwillingness to listen to new ideas and perspectives.
- Think strategically. Consider whether your organization is growing at the rate you anticipate, or if it seems stagnant. If the company isn’t expanding satisfactorily, or if revenue is flat or even dropping, that could be a sign that stale ideas are in circulation. Also, consider the flip side of stagnation. If your organization has been doing really well lately and has enjoyed some recent successes, watch out for complacency, which can trigger groupthink.
- Get big-picture perspective. Take a look at your company’s board, managers and general employee population. Does everyone seem to have similar resumes? For example, does everyone tend to have the same:
- Life experiences
- Socioeconomic backgrounds
- Education levels and areas of focus
- Ingrained opinions
- Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills
Furthermore, does any particular gender, race, ethnicity or age group, for example, tend to dominate within your workforce?
If so, you may have a diversity problem that can lead to groupthink.
When groupthink exists in a workplace, a number of things can happen:
- Dearth of creativity and innovation
- Business mistakes or lost opportunities
- Slow or stagnating business growth
- Work environment doesn’t feel inclusive to some people
- The blame game (When no single employee feels they own a decision, finger-pointing and protests of “It’s not my fault” often occur when things go wrong.)
- Feelings of discouragement, disconnection and frustration, which causes burnout and lowers morale among employees
- Impaired relationships between managers, employees and peers
All of these consequences impact each other and have the potential to affect an organization’s productivity and financial bottom line.
Strategies to overcome groupthink – and prevent it in the first place
- Employees need to know, without any doubt, that:
- Their ideas and opinions are valued.
- They can voice their ideas and opinions without retribution – even if they may be in opposition to someone else’s, particularly a manager’s.
- The company evaluates information objectively.
- The company is unafraid of making changes to the status quo in the best interest of the organization.
- Diversification, starting at the top of your organization, is another way to start making changes. You must have a diverse representation of people, especially in those critical decision-making roles, to encourage and obtain a broad variety of perspectives on certain issues.
- Inclusivity – the idea that someone doesn’t have to change who they are at their core to be accepted in the workplace – is equally important. Often, people assume diversity and inclusion go hand in hand. However, just because an organization is diverse doesn’t mean it’s automatically inclusive.
- Managers should prompt employees to object or present other ideas during discussions. In fact, these skills should become an essential part of manager training:
- Running brainstorming sessions
- Leading groups in healthy workplace debate
- Avoiding an intimidating, know-it-all persona
- Listening to and considering new, unanticipated ideas
- Balancing conversations so that everyone has a voice
- Encouraging people who are quiet or naturally more reserved to speak up
- Escalating potential problems or issues that are brought to their attention
Lastly, leadership should periodically review current policies, procedures and strategies, and assess where improvements can be made. The prevailing rule should never be: “X works, so X is the only way.”
Summing it all up
People often have a powerful need to belong and feel accepted, while fearing mistakes and conflict. That’s why groupthink is a challenge for so many organizations – and, in most cases, we’re not even aware of our mental processes that nudge us toward conformity and agreement. In some cases, groupthink can be a symptom of deeper problems at a workplace like conflict management, culture and diversity. To uproot groupthink and avoid the negative consequences, companies need to pay attention to the presence of common warning signs and practice certain strategies:
- Increase diversity
- Enhance inclusivity
- Train managers well on leading others through the decision-making process
- Have a plan for conflict management
- Review current practices and update as needed
To learn more about being an organization that promotes creativity, idea sharing, critical thinking, diversity and inclusion, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.