Groupthink – how to manage it

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

Wikipedia’s definition of Groupthink

Part One – The problem

One of the reasons collaboration is highly desired is because as our world gets increasingly complex, there is significant benefit in bringing diverse thoughts and perspectives to difficult issues.  But here is the problem: discoveries in the last decade about the brain and how we operate have made it very apparent that we humans are even more influenced by what our peers and colleagues think than we previously thought. Moreover, much of this influence is unconscious. [i]  It also seems that if our intuitive reaction to something gives us an answer that feels largely okay [ii], we often don’t bother to look any further.  This means that if we are not careful when we work in groups, rather than improving our thinking, we can potentially amplify our errors in decision-making.

There are a variety of reasons for this.   One is that we have a tendency for both our conscious and unconscious to pull us towards agreeing – and being seen to agree – with others.  This tendency results in a bias toward accepting views that are shared early in a discussion. (It could also be termed the “Trump effect” as it suggests politicians who do well early, tend to get a bump in popularity purely off the back of the early polling.)

Another effect that results from considering an issue as a group, is that the group’s opinion often ‘polarizes‘ toward a more extreme position than the individual members held. [iii]  If, for example, the majority of the executive team of a company had a slight initial predisposition toward expanding into the Australian market, in a discussion about the proposal, more arguments in favour than against will be expressed.  It seems individuals upon hearing new arguments supporting their initial predisposition tend to then become even more strongly committed.    Enthusiasm for the Australian venture may consequently spiral beyond any of their initial individual positions, as they gain confidence from each other in the likely success of the plan.

It is also clear that, even where the individuals between them hold all of the knowledge needed to make a good decision, knowledge that is only known to one or two people in the group is often either not brought out or is given disproportionately less weight than knowledge that is already familiar to more members.  People may be reluctant to share information that goes counter to the group’s existing inclination.  But it is often this ‘cognitively peripheral’ information that is crucial. If you’ve experienced this, try some of our suggested solutions below.

Part Two – Suggested Solutions

Reid Hastie and Cass Sunstein in their great book Wiser: Getting Beyond Group Think to Make Groups Smarter [iv] explain how a team’s culture and decision-making processes can significantly address these issues.

Use processes that require individual thinking and/or anonymity: We often have individuals take five minutes to write their own thoughts in response to a question before facilitating wider discussion.  This reduces the tendency for any team member’s initial thoughts to be lost to the first opinions voiced.  Sometimes a process to put forward those perspectives anonymously is also valuable.

Value & reward critical thinking: Encourage your team to debate and share challenging information by treating it as a useful contribution rather than an affront to the team. Setting up a particular conversation as requiring critical assessment rather than just going with the flow can have an immediate impact.

The quiet leader: If you lead the team, hold back your opinion until nearer the end of a discussion. This will likely get more diversity of input from your team.

Reward group success: Emphasise team over individual success. Where incentive structures and the team culture make team members genuinely feel that they haven’t succeeded (and won’t be given credit) unless the team has succeeded, people are more likely to take a personal risk to voice perspectives that differ to the majority, in order to avoid the team making a decision they consider wrong.

Assign roles: If each person in a group is an acknowledged specialist they are more inclined to contribute what they know. This can be encouraged in most groups by assigning people a particular area of focus or responsibility. For example, someone may be appointed the responsibility for considering the people impacts, another for process and efficiency factors and a third for customer impacts.

Appoint a devil’s advocate or a “Red Team”:  Assigning someone to be a ‘devils advocate’, makes presenting the dissenting view a defined obligation.  However, note that this is not as effective as authentic dissent.  A more sophisticated, and it seems more effective approach is a to appoint a sub-group who’s job is to construct the strongest possible case against a proposal or plan.

Our work at UPDRAFT is all about harnessing that synergy that a great team can achieve.  By making an effort to develop a culture that incentivises real synergy over unquestioning unity, and achievement over harmony, teams can become more than the sum of their parts.

Groupthink is an evil that reduces the effectiveness of collaboration that most of us are only mildly aware of. Without some attention to this, it is very easy for teams to underperform.

[i] Rock, D. Cox, C.  Ph.D, (2012), SCARF® in 2012: Updating the Social Neuroscience of Collaborating with Others, Neuroleadership Journal (Vol 4)

[ii] Daniel Kahneman, (2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, London, Penguin Random House

[iii] Sunstein, C. R. and Hastie, R. Making Dumb Groups Smarter, Harvard Business Review, December 2014.

[iv] Sunstein, C. R. and Hastie, R. (2014) Wiser:  Getting Beyond Group Think to Make Groups Smarter,  Harvard Business Review Press.

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