What is Groupthink?

By IDI Staff

As many of us find ourselves leading or being part of working groups for the execution of strategic planning decisions, we should all be watching out for common group biases that can cause these group discussions to bog down, ignore important aspects of the problem, or head in the wrong direction.

The most famous group bias was first identified by Irving Janis in his 1972 book called Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. He described it as the tendency on the part of group participants to conform to group norms to avoid conflict - to go along to get along.

Groupthink results from our natual need to belong and to avoid conflict. Group members may feel that if they question a group decision, the rest of the group will think poorly of them.

Janis and others have described a number of vivid examples from history that show the disastrous consequences of groupthink, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, Pearl Harbor, Watergate, and the Challenger shuttle disaster.

Janis provides some good suggestions for how groups can avoid groupthink. If you plan to lead a working group, use this checklist early on as you establish your team's ground rules.

1. Group leader does not state his/her opinion first. The leader, when assigning a task to a group, should be impartial instead of stating preferences and expectations at the outset. This practice requires each leader to limit his or her briefings to unbiased statements about the scope of the problem and the limitations of available resources, without advocating specific proposals he or she would like to see adopted. This allows the members the opportunity to develop an atmosphere of open inquiry and to explore impartially a wide range of policy alternatives.

2. Members take turns being the Devil's Advocate. The leader should assign the role of critical evaluator or devil's advocate to each member, encouraging the group to give high priority to airing objections and doubts. This practice needs to be reinforced by the leader's acceptance of criticism of his or her own judgments in order to discourage the members from soft-pedaling their disagreements.

3. Several groups work independently. The team should routinely follow the administrative practice of setting up several independent sub-groups to work on the same problem, each carrying out its deliberations under a different leader.

4. Outside experts invited to review. One or more outside experts or qualified colleagues within the organization who are not core members of the group should be invited to each meeting on a staggered basis and should be encouraged to challenge the views of the core members.

5. Cassandra's Advocate to generate alternative scenarios. Whenever the issue involves uncertainty about the situation or the reactions of other stakeholders, a sizeable block of time (perhaps an entire session) should be spent surveying all warning signals and constructing alternative scenarios of the situation or reactions.

6. Hold a "second chance" meeting. After reaching a preliminary concensus about what seems to be the best alternative, the group should hold a "second chance" meeting at which the members are expected to express as vividly as they can all the residual doubts and to rethink the entire issue before making a definitive choice.

(adapted from Irving Janis' book Groupthink)