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Groupthink is a Leader's Worst Enemy

During the Great Recession, top tech companies that defied groupthink and continually invested in R&D emerged as leaders. Leaders must recognize that they must seize opportunities and innovate, or their competitors will leave them behind.

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
3 min read
An image of robots in a line symbolizing groupthink
Groupthink is a Leader's Worst Enemy

I've recently received calls and emails from several C-level executives and innovation/R&D leaders asking for the same advice. The problem? They fear their departments—and even the larger organization — are falling prey to groupthink.

Groupthink is defined as “the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.” It's the tendency for teams and organizations to become overly confident in their decisions and perspectives, leading them to reject alternative ideas that might improve their strategies.

What is it that has everyone concerned?

The world is facing significant challenges. In the current economic climate, many leaders are retreating from their R&D and innovation efforts and "playing it safe." Groupthink is becoming more prevalent, with leaders adopting a safety-in-numbers mentality and opting to stay under the radar. However, it is crucial for leaders to embrace the exact opposite mindset.

"Groupthink is the silent killer of innovation, rendering even the most promising teams stagnant in a sea of conformity."

Leaders who want to be successful must think for themselves and not just follow the herd. Why do leaders fall into the trap of groupthink? How can leaders recognize when they are falling into it? What steps they can take to avoid it?

Why Do Leaders Groupthink?

One reason is that it is easier to follow than to lead. It takes courage to go against the crowd and even more courage to lead. Unfortunately, many leaders are unwilling to take risks and make hard decisions. This is especially true in a time of great uncertainty. Leaders tend to fear large-scale change and risk rather than embracing it. They would rather stay in their comfort zone than venture into uncharted territory. But leaders who rely on the status quo are bound to be left behind by their more innovative competitors.

When Are Leaders Falling into Groupthink?

One sign is when everyone within a group is in agreement. This conformity can lead to overconfidence and poor decision-making. Groupthink is also present when decisions are made without considering all the options or without looking at things critically. Groupthink can be especially dangerous when the stakes are high, as it can lead to catastrophic outcomes. It is, therefore, important for leaders to be aware of these signs and to reign in their tendencies toward groupthink.

Another sign is when people are more concerned with maintaining relationships than making sound decisions. Leaders must know how their relationships and biases can affect their decision-making. They must be aware of their group's power dynamics and ensure that all voices are heard.

Steps To Avoid Groupthink

It is important for leaders to encourage dissenting opinions and views within their team. By doing so, they can create an environment that fosters creativity and innovation. Leaders can also consider consulting with external experts and stakeholders who can provide fresh perspectives and new ideas. Leaders should also set realistic goals and timelines and ensure that decisions are based on hard data, not just speculation.

Leaders must also ensure that they have an open culture that encourages critical thinking and discourages conformity. Team members should be encouraged to challenge assumptions, ask questions, and provide constructive feedback. Leaders must be receptive to their team's input and have the courage to make tough decisions. It is also crucial for leaders to have a diverse team, which can help avoid the pitfalls of groupthink.

Finally, leaders should have regular “check-ins” with their teams to ensure that everyone is still on the same page. It is also important for leaders to set aside time for reflection and make sure they are taking a step back from their team's day-to-day operations.

Examples of Avoiding Groupthink

During the Great Recession in 2008, an analysis conducted by EY on nearly 300 publicly listed technology companies revealed an interesting trend. The top quartile performers, who demonstrated exceptional performance, continued to invest in research and development (R&D), even through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), during the recession. This strategic approach allowed them to emerge from the recession and accelerate their growth swiftly.

On the other hand, the bottom-quartile tech performers were more inclined to reduce R&D expenses and other capital investments, making them significantly less likely to recover as successfully.

This highlights the importance of avoiding groupthink influenced from both inside and outside an organization during challenging economic times.


Leaders who want to be successful must think for themselves and not just follow the herd. Leaders can avoid groupthink and make sound decisions by encouraging dissenting opinions and critical thinking, consulting with external experts, and having a team with diverse experiences.

Leaders must be fearless when it comes to making decisions.  Leaders must recognize that every decision carries risk, but they should also seize opportunities and innovate when appropriate - or else their competitors will leave them behind. This requires courage and determination - but if leaders will take risks, they will reap great rewards.


Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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