What is groupthink in the workplace? All you need to know

Last updated:
August 2, 2022
August 12, 2022
min read
Rebecca Anderson
Recruitee
Martina Di Gregorio
Recruitee
groupthink in the workplace
Table of contents

How do employees in your organization reach a consensus when making decisions as a team? 

While creating a cohesive and collaborative environment is vital, it should not be at the expense of critical thinking and creativity. When individuals are not allowed to express their ideas, they become disengaged and may even stop contributing. 

Groupthink can lead companies to ignore warning signs and go down destructive paths. The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster proves how dangerous the phenomenon can be. Engineers were aware of faulty parts before the launch, but they kept quiet. NASA might have avoided the disaster if the experts had not followed the majority opinion and voiced their concerns. 

It is wise to learn how to recognize the symptoms of groupthink in the workplace to avoid the pitfall it brings. In this post, we discuss that and much more. 

What is groupthink? 

Groupthink refers to the psychological phenomenon where people support popular decisions at the expense of their own opinions.

Cohesion is good, but it stifles critical thinking and creativity in this case. Businesses suffer as a result due to a general lack of new ideas. Employees choose to remain quiet even when organizations adopt bad ideas. 

The term gained popularity in 1972 through the book Victims of Groupthink by Irving L Janis. But it was William H Whyte Jr. who coined the term in 1952. Janis was puzzled by why some teams can make excellent decisions but make the worst judgments in others. He conducted extensive research, revealing that bad decisions follow when teams lack creative friction. 

When employees start feeling invulnerable and take the moral high ground on ideas emanating from their team, they are bound to miss danger signs along the way. Groupthink is more prevalent in small groups as cohesion precedes individual thinking. 

What are examples of groupthink?

When Pepsi rolled out the Black Lives Matter Ad featuring Kendall Jenner in 2017, they were unprepared for the backlash they received. The public viewed the ad as insensitive and thought the company wanted to make sales out of a serious issue. Since such a campaign involves a lot of people, it is inconceivable that no one noticed and challenged its rollout. 

The more feasible explanation is that the team must have been a victim of groupthink. The lack of an alternative view led to adopting a poorly thought-out advert. 

Another example is the fall of the flying bank, as Swiss Air was fondly called. The company was financially successful in its heyday, but a few directors' dismissals led to a lack of alternative ideas and industrial expertise. The remaining directors easily agreed on everything since they shared similar backgrounds and values. The strategies these leaders made led to its failure. 

What causes groupthink in the workplace? 

Groupthink is highly likely if your company has unclear decision-making structures, is siloed from external influences, and members share the same background.

The following are the major causes: 

1. Fear of negative consequences 

One of the biggest problems with small teams is nobody wants to be the odd one out. Nobody shares contrary opinions, especially if the members tend to exclude dissenters.

As a result, employees self-sensor when they know the reaction of the team leader or the rest of the group will be negative.

Businesses miss out on creative feedback resulting in the adoption of terrible decisions that may cost you. 

2. Poor leadership 

A closed leadership style is a perfect recipe for groupthink. Strong charismatic leaders tend to influence the team's decisions. Also, popular, outspoken persons overpower the quiet ones and have their opinions carry the day. These opinions are not necessarily the right ones for the company, as in the examples above.

Related reading: discover how to create a culture of open communication

3. Lack of diversity 

Having employees with similar backgrounds and values is a significant cause of groupthink. They perceive themselves as superior and outsiders inferior.

A contrary opinion may even be received as immoral and therefore not worth their consideration. If you have hiring biases towards a particular group of people, you rob your organization of a holistic view in arguments or discussions.

Research suggests that culturally diverse workplaces are 70% more likely to capture new markets.

Related reading: discover how to improve create a diversity recruitment strategy

4. Lack of information 

If members lack information about the topic under discussion, they are more likely to indulge in groupthink and agree with whatever is presented. Also, the perception of specific employees being more qualified than others can easily lead to this phenomenon. 

5. Stress 

The pressure brought on by stress can lead to members accepting the consensus as long as the discussion ends. 

What are the effects of groupthink?

Once a team falls into this trap, independent thinking is suppressed over creating harmony in the workplace. Such an environment does not allow differing ideas that may offer a better solution to the problem.

Groupthink has the following impact on the workplace: 

  • Lack of creative friction 
  • Disregarding important information 
  • Blindness to unsuccessful results 
  • Resisting new ideas 
  • Overconfidence in group decision 
  • Not questioning authority 
  • Unpreparedness for negative outcomes 
  • Not listening to contrary opinions 

8 Symptoms of groupthink 

Look out for the following symptoms in your team to identify groupthink: 

1. Self-censorship 

In addition to censoring fellow workers, your employees will engage in self-censorship. They stop speaking when they notice their opinion contradicts the team's consensus or popular opinion. 

2. Direct pressure on dissenters 

If you have a counterargument against popular opinion, the rest of the group will apply pressure to silence you. As a result, many stay silent for fear of being excluded or being regarded as disloyal. 

3. Rationalization 

Employees create arguments to justify the group's decision while ignoring any warnings they are wrong. 

4. Ostracizing other members 

Members who oppose the team's collective opinion are excluded and treated as outsiders. Groups consider dissenters as ignorant. 

5. Mindguards 

Some members ensure that contrary opinions to the group's views do not reach the leaders and other members regardless of whether it is helpful information. 

6. Invulnerability 

The employees tend to be overconfident due to the illusion of invulnerability, which leads to taking dangerous and unnecessary risks. 

7. Unquestioned morals 

Individual beliefs and morals are disregarded, and every decision is believed to be correct. Also, the implications of the group's judgments are ignored. 

8. Unanimity 

The group's view is unanimous, and all members stand by it. Silence is taken as consent during meetings. 

6 Steps you can take to avoid groupthink 

1. Diversify your team 

Cultural and social diversity promotes better decision-making in the workplace. Everyone brings differing thoughts and views, shedding more light on problems and increasing the chance of reaching the best possible solution.

Research suggests a diverse workforce has a 60% higher chance of making successful decisions than a non-diverse one. For instance, in the failed Pepsi ad, having the black community represented in the team would have shed light on how the community would receive it. 

2. Encourage/enable quiet voices to speak up

You can have a diverse workforce but not an inclusive one. A good leader should promote inclusivity by encouraging quiet employees who often get overpowered by loud ones.

Asking people to raise their hands during meetings is one way of ensuring all members contribute.

If you notice groupthink manifesting itself, try asking contrary questions to give dissenting voices a chance to be heard. 

3. Promote inclusive leadership 

Your actions as the leader set the tone for employees to feel valued. If you begin by being dominating, you may intimidate some of the workers, and out of fear of being sacked or disciplined, they will go along with everything you say. Try to include members in the discussion as much as possible and avoid dictating what you want. 

Understanding everyone on your team and how they communicate ensures you can prompt them appropriately. Your workplace culture should promote psychological safety, encouraging all workers to contribute without fear. 

4. Offer learning opportunities 

Empowering employees through learning enables them to offer contrary opinions confidently. You can allow them to take classes that give them the information to help them improve their performance. 

5. Hold regular performance reviews 

Meet your employees regularly as their leaders, and address their concerns and issues.

Encourage them to offer all opinions, even negative ones, as long as they remain constructive.

You may also take the opportunity to get the views of those employees who are too timid to contribute during meetings. 

6. Encourage sharing 

Encourage an environment of sharing where participation is celebrated.

Rewarding employees is one way of promoting this culture while ensuring alternative ideas are given their place in the discussion.

Also, you should analyze all information objectively, whether in-house or from external sources. 

Conclusion 

Groupthink can potentially bring disastrous results to an organization if not checked. It can lead employees to stop critical, individual thinking in favor of the collective. The company loses the opportunity for new ideas and innovation.

Ideally, the workplace should be safe for all employees to work together and belong. Co-workers should not be made to feel like their thoughts don't matter. Once that is achieved, you should have improved creativity and quality decisions.

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