By: Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow, clinical assistant professor of business law and management
A version of this blog was published in the Indianapolis Recorder here.
You are in a staff meeting. When your group’s leader asks for input regarding a bold, new initiative, the silence is deafening. You look around the room. You see affirming nods and smiling faces, as far as the eye can see. But you also see something else. It’s writing on the wall — right in front of you, and it spells, “This initiative is a disaster in the making. “For a fleeting moment, you think about saying something. But the next moment, you feel an even stronger urge to be a team player. So, you say nothing.
Has this happened to you?
More specifically, if you’re the group’s leader, are you aware of what just happened within the group?
Welcome to the club of Groupthink.
Perhaps you never heard of Groupthink. It occurs when a sound decision-making process is impaired by the bigger concern of preserving group unity. This relentless pursuit of harmony can cause a group to see the world through biased and narrow lens which leads it to take irrational chances, reach premature conclusions, and — in the end, cause good people to make bad decisions.
Insider groups — private clubs and fraternities, religious groups, and even schools and corporations — are particularly prone to Groupthink. One recent egregious example of Groupthink occurred at Penn State when for several years the highest levels of leadership covered-up multiple accounts of child abuse committed by former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky.
Another well-known example of Groupthink can be found in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Before the launch, some engineers on the project raised concerns about the ability of the O-ring seals to withstand the launch temperatures and opposed the launch. They were pressured by the group to reconsider their position and reverse their initial no-go position, which they did with disastrous results.
How can leaders prevent Groupthink?
Even in the most open organizations, people are reluctant to contradict their leaders. So, how can leaders prevent Groupthink?
Anticipate Groupthink: One of the common reasons given for Groupthink is the absence of anticipating it. Supervisors and group leaders should discuss the possibility of Groupthink evolving. Remember, it’s only good hearing everyone singing the same song when everyone is singing the right song.
Build Diverse Teams: Actively seek and value diversity on teams to include age, culture disciplines, and ideas. Include the following three different styles of participation and thinking: Explorers (extroverted, inquisitive, comfortable with ambiguity, free-thinking); Developers (creative problem-solvers, perhaps quieter, but love being given a problem or challenge to solve); and Commercializers (realists, business-minded, pragmatists).
Assign a Devil’s Advocate: Every team needs a well-respected person or group to question the wisdom of ideas and raise issues that might otherwise be ignored. Foster debate of opposite viewpoints of an issue. Value and welcome divergent thinking. Reward truth speakers.
Explore Alternatives: Examine all possibilities and reexamine rejected alternatives, including alternatives from outside sources. Make sure your team has looked at every option. Ask what’s the best case scenario? What’s the worst case? How good is the best? How bad is the worst?
Take the Group’s Pulse: There is a proverb from Spain that claims, “Those who stay silent do not say nothing.” At the end of your meeting with the group or team, are members upbeat and positive, or are they silently running for the door? Prior to making a major decision, ask each group member for the pros and cons of each decision.
The need for a group to conform — Groupthink — is an all too common ailment that can adversely affect good people and healthy groups, making them inefficient, unproductive, and dysfunctional. In order to for groups to make sound decisions, leaders need to take the time to create a work environment where diverse points of view are not only welcomed but also valued.