How to avoid groupthink: Tackling pitfalls and paradoxes
Meetings are especially susceptible to groupthink. This article takes a closer look at this phenomenon, exploring its causes, connections, and consequences, and providing guidance on how to avoid groupthink in meetings.
Decisions are central to success in meetings - but consensus isn't a prerequisite in every respective group. In fact, there are a number of pitfalls that can bring meetings to unfavourable results, even to the point of making capital mistakes. Groupthink - a widespread psychological phenomenon - is a real danger.
After all, groupthink quietly tears down the structures from which good decisions ordinarily emerge. In some cases, the decision-making process seems to run optimally, but meeting participants unsuspectingly leads it ad absurdum as a result of this phenomenon. As a result, bowing to the pressure to conform and the strong need for collective harmony can lead to missteps - caused by groupthink. And the causes are myriad.
Given their highly social nature, meetings are especially susceptible to groupthink, especially when a respected subject-matter expert or dominant leader appears. However, this does not have to be the case. Instead, meetings can benefit from some targeted precautions against groupthink.
This article takes a closer look at the phenomenon of groupthink and explores its causes, connections, and consequences. It also provides examples of groupthink, and guidance on how to avoid groupthink in meetings.
Groupthink: What is behind it?
It is widely accepted that, when acting in groups, people often deviate from their individual behaviour patterns and inner convictions. Groups often act differently than how each individual participant tends to act for themself.
This phenomenon is initially not subject to any evaluation and can only be judged on the basis of its consequences: Ideally, group dynamics lead to successes that individuals would not be capable of. Too often, however, the opposite is true: through patterns of interaction such as peer pressure, valuable individual impulses are lost, they are - quite literally - suppressed. The result is usually consensus decisions that are only formally reached and remain below the cognitive potential of the group.
But what does groupthink mean in concrete terms? In the following we present a definition.
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Definition of groupthink
Groupthink refers to behaviour in which individuals subscribe to the position or judgement of a collective, regardless of their own views. This leads to a complete assimilation of the various individual opinions into a shared or tacitly accepted group opinion. Since the rationality of each individual is thus only diminished or not brought to bear at all, the subsequent decisions are often characterised by irrationality. The consequences increase parallel to the importance of the respective decision and, in the worst case, lead to catastrophes.1
Groupthink arises above all when participants - in favour of a need for harmony - do not pursue alternatives with the accuracy they deserve or do not pursue them at all.
Groupthink arises above all when participants - in favour of a need for harmony - do not pursue alternatives with the accuracy they deserve or do not pursue them at all. Thus, decision-making shows deficits and the interactions do not fulfil the desired function of making an adequate, well thought-out decision that is as profitable as possible. In this context, groupthink arises both from structural weaknesses and from unfavourable situational contexts.2
The origin of groupthink
The term groupthink was coined by the US social and research psychologist Irving Janis. He introduced it in 1972 in his book "Victims of Groupthink”. Janis analysed bad decisions in American foreign policy. He held group-dynamic processes responsible for these decisions: those involved in decision making had yielded to the consensus, contrary to their actual opinions. As a result, according to Janis, groupthink led to fiascos such as the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Janis' findings were eventually confirmed in further studies, including one on the Challenger disaster. 3,4
Examples of groupthink: Pitfalls and paradoxes
Meetings mostly have these purposes: To gain clarity and to reach informed decisions. With groupthink, this clarity turns out to be deceptive: although positions have been presented, they do not necessarily correspond with reality - at least to some extent. For various reasons, participants fail to stand up for their convictions, and instead adopt a perceived socially accepted view. In short: the purpose of the meeting, to benefit from collective knowledge, with unified expertise and targeted contributions, is instead reduced to absurdity.
In this way, participants can adhere to numerous meeting rules, but still become entangled in paradoxes: In some cases, the result is the exact opposite of its outward appearance - namely, not a majority decision, but the mere reproduction of a minority opinion that is perceived as harmonious.
Consider the following example of groupthink: In the course of a meeting, a participant has the impression that he is the only one whose opinion contradicts that of the CEO. In order not to attract negative attention, he votes according to the CEO's position - but still thinks the same way about the problem. In subsequent conversations with other participants, it finally turns out that many of them shared his opinion but also voted "conform". The result was therefore unanimous, but did not reflect reality.
Reasons for groupthink: The factors blocking good decisions
There are some individual characteristics and social processes that bring about groupthink, and therefore work against good decisions. Here is an overview of some of them:
- Pressure to fit in and conform - Wanting to fit in and belong is a learned behaviour. After all, there are advantages to being an accepted part of a group.
- Avoidance of negative experiences - Hardly anyone likes to feel inferior. Moreover, there is the danger of revealing deficits or appearing stupid. Accepting someone else's opinion provides security here.
- Underestimating one's own expertise - Participants can often feel a sense of imposter syndrome, or feel inferior to other experts. As a result, they adopt their opinion in order to appear more competent.
- Tactical and political reasons - Honesty is not always to one's own advantage. For example, those who signal support for a fellow participant's initiative have a better chance of getting their projects and initiatives passed, too.
- Disinterest - If the issue does not seem personally important or interesting, it can be more convenient to simply go along with a popular opinion.
Consequences of groupthink
Knowing the causes of groupthink provides a good understanding of the suboptimal and potentially devastating dynamics in meetings and in professional life in general. To understand the nature of groupthink in more detail, we should explore its underlying consequences.
Organisations should be aware of the effects of groupthink in order to be vigilant to them, and to be ready to counteract them.
Here is an overview of some of the consequences of groupthink:
- Lower quality of decisions - Decisions suffer from groupthink. While this phenomenon can result in quick decisions, they are more often not the right ones and can result in serious consequences.
- Distorted realities - Groups can be subject to the idea that the collective is doing everything correctly, although this does not always correspond with reality. This can create a false sense of security: The participants feel "invincible", even though they could be contributing to suboptimal decisions and the selection of risky paths, or to leaving opportunities behind.5
- A reduced field of vision - As a result of collective bias, group members fail to even perceive alternatives to current actions and opportunities. This limited field of vision not only risks missing valuable opportunities, but also endangers an organisation's market position in the medium and longer term.
- Waste of time and resources - With groupthink, strictly speaking, there is no need for meetings: since participants adopt a singular position, and therefore this position could simply have been asserted dictatorially. On the one hand, the wasted time creates inefficiencies and opportunity costs; on the other hand, it possibly consumes resources that could have been spent elsewhere.
- Meeting fatigue - Groupthink leads to unproductive meetings, which participants experience first-hand. Without genuine discourse and meaningful dialogue, meetings become a tedious pursuit, resulting in exhaustion for all. To be lively and energising, meetings need exciting interjections, individual contributions, and genuine initiatives.
How to avoid groupthink: Ways to make clear decisions
Is groupthink now an inevitable, necessary evil? Certainly not. However, the risk of succumbing to this phenomenon is, objectively speaking, relatively high. However, there are a range of effective countermeasures that can be taken.
It is crucial to identify groupthink as early as possible, and to be aware of (and effectively implement) remedial strategies. Since the highly social nature of meetings makes them susceptible to such dynamics, countermeasures to this effect are important contributions to collective success.
In the following, we present some guidance on how to avoid groupthink.
Five strategies to avoid groupthink and achieve clarity
- Encourage diversity: Homogeneous groups whose members think very similarly are more prone to groupthink. One solution is to choose meeting participants that are as heterogeneous as possible, and to pay deliberate attention to diversity. In fact, diverse teams can be key to success as they sharpen focus, challenge entrenched thinking patterns, and lead to more informed decisions.
- Involve external experts: Expertise that does not come from close quarters creates a more holistic and less constrained view of situations. Groupthink can also be avoided through impartiality and less biased, fresher perspectives.
- Encourage creativity and promote engagement: Utilising meeting facilitation techniques, such as brainwriting, not only brings out creativity, but also prevents participants from influencing one another too much. It can also be helpful to divide the participants into several small teams, each of which develops its own (partial) solution to the problems being discussed. It is crucial to encourage participants to think for themselves, and in an unbiased way. Instead of simply voting, everyone should come up with their own solutions - before a groundbreaking discussion takes place.6
- As a leader, stand back: Groupthink often arises from a misguided sense of duty to a leader. Authority can lead to the adoption of opinions and behaviours and as a result, discussions are reduced and meetings lose impact. For this reason, leaders should keep their views to themselves for as long as possible in order to uncover the real views of their teams. This way, there is a greater chance of gaining insights and making well-rounded decisions.
- Vote anonymously: In open votes, participants are required to reveal their individual position on issues. In the case where an individuals' opinion dissents against superiors and colleagues, it is often that case that people do not vote according to them. Anonymous ballots are therefore an effective means of ensuring that the results of meetings reflect the true opinions of the participants.
There are, therefore, a number of means at hand to prevent or reduce groupthink, and psychological safety plays a key role here. It ensures that team members approach meetings with more self-confidence and less pressure to conform to the group norms.
Leaders should be aware of this and, based on it, find strategies to ensure that dangerous social dynamics do not steer their meetings off course.
Recognising and acting upon groupthink
Groupthink is a widespread phenomenon: it arises in many social interactions. We are also increasingly dealing with it in the world of work, and especially in meetings. On social media, it almost prevails as a basic principle: The groups and the news feeds of users increasingly reflect their opinions, and often manifest already existing thought patterns.7
In general, groupthink is based on a pressure to conform and a pronounced need for harmony. It has a negative impact on the quality of decisions and poses several pitfalls - from misunderstandings to paradoxical decisions.
In order to avoid these pitfalls and conduct productive meetings, the characteristics of groupthink should first be known. Based on this, countermeasures can be implemented to help thwart dangerous dynamics as much as possible.
Groupthink cannot be completely prevented - people as social beings often adopt it without noticing. But knowledge about it can help enormously in business contexts, and especially in meetings. It is a valuable stop on the journey to excellent meetings.
1 "The Nation: NASA's Curse?; 'Groupthink' Is 30 Years Old, And Still Going Strong", J. Schwartz and M. L. Wald, NY Times, 2003.
2 "Closed-mindedness and insulation in groupthink: their effects and the devil’s advocacy as a preventive measure", M. Akhmad, S. Chang & H. Deguchi, Journal of Computational Social Science, 2021.
3 Groupthink – Gruppendenken & die Bedeutung für Teamführung, Psycho-Wissen für Führungskräfte, Axel Rittershaus, 2020.
4 “Gruppendenken”, Lexikon der Psychologie, Spektrum Akademischer Verlag.
5 “Gruppendenken”, Dr. Georg Angermeier, Projektmagazin, 2004.
6 Groupthink – Gruppendenken & die Bedeutung für Teamführung, Psycho-Wissen für Führungskräfte, Axel Rittershaus, 2020.
7 "Auf einer Linie: Warum Gruppendenken so gefährlich ist", Josef Häckler, BR24, 2021.