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If You Want To Innovate Then Avoid The Herd: Groupthink Leads to Bad Decisions

Research on small groups has found that people in groups tend to “like” people who are most like them. They establish norms or limits to behavior to make sure similarity and harmony are nurtured or even enforced. This normal group behavior (the effects of groupthink) can turn into a problem because

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
4 min read
Define groupthink group think
Group Think and groupthink can lead to bad decisions

Research on small groups has found that people in groups tend to “like” people who are most like them. They establish norms or limits to behavior to make sure similarity and harmony are nurtured or even enforced. This normal group behavior (the effects of groupthink) can turn into a problem because breakaway ideas that may cause fractures in the group norms are necessary for the group to progress and innovate.

Social psychologist Irving Janis took a stab to define group think in 1972. It happens when behavioral norms are enforced to maintain group cohesiveness but lead to “a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.”

Groupthink leads to bad decisions because they tend to ignore problems with the group’s decisions and discount outsiders.

Phil McKinney

Symptoms of Groupthink:

Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink, as quoted by Psychologists for Social Responsibility:

  1. The illusion of invulnerability—Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization—Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality—Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore their decisions' ethical or moral consequences.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups—Negative views of the “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. The direct pressure on dissenters—Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship—Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. The illusion of unanimity—The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed mindguards—Self appointed mind guards protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions

Bad Decisions:

Groupthink leads to bad decisions because it encourages members of the group to ignore potential problems with the group’s decisions and discount the opinions of outsiders. When members of the group are too comfortable with each other, similar in background, or become insulated from outside influences and information, groupthink can be a big problem. It influences decisions most when there are no clear rules for decision-making and there are self-appointed mindguards.

Groupthink is especially dangerous in business groups, where cohesiveness is linked to financial rewards and personal advancement, along with the threat of exclusion. As executive coach Dr. Pete Stebbins notes, groups often make internal value judgments that are unfair to those outside the group. When that happens, though, there are no or few consequences because there’s little accountability to anyone outside the group.

Teams that have developed a strong in-group familiarity may feel comfortable deciding in isolation, believing they will never challenge their own decisions. Notable examples of this occur all the time in the banking and financial industries. There are great examples of groupthink in movies such as the recent Oscar-nominated film “The Big Short”.

Essentially, in a group that has succumbed to groupthink, any viewpoints that may contradict the consensus of the group are self-censored to preserve cohesiveness. Groupthink symptoms include a collective sense of invulnerability and overconfidence when members rationalize away problems and explain away threats to success. Members begin to consider membership as a mark of superiority and justify their actions as part of a greater good that only they can see. And they disregard new ideas that may call their past assumptions into question. This is the danger of groupthink.

Examples of Groupthink:

In July 2001, Swissair, the Swiss national carrier, which had been so financially stable that people called it “the flying bank,” suddenly collapsed. Just before that, Swissair insiders eliminated much of the industrial and technical expertise from its governing board. Many regard this decision as to the result of insider groupthink, reducing dissonance that threatened cohesiveness on the board.

In 1999, the members of the Major League Umpires Association were so convinced of their unified position that 54 of them resigned en masse, thinking they could force negotiations with MLB for a new labor agreement. Groupthink robbed them of their ability to consider the likely outcome. The baseball owners accepted and finalized the resignations of 22 umpires, hiring new ones. MLB de-certified the union, which was eventually replaced by the World Umpires Association.

Combating Groupthink:

Combating groupthink has been the subject of a lot of research since Janis introduced the idea in 1972. While it can be insidious and hard to change once it’s taken root, groupthink can be fought—it just takes concrete strategies that ensure dissenting opinions are heard.

Formalize the questioning process. Groups should organize regular feedback reviews where each member is expected to come up with a reservation or problem regarding the project or problem being worked on. These discussions can really get members to question the group's decisions. By eliminating the fear of being rejected by the group, any concerns raised are no longer under threat.

Institute anonymity. There should always be a way for group members to anonymously raise concerns about ideas or solutions the group comes up with. Many people, regardless of group cohesiveness, feel uncomfortable bringing up objections in a group, especially when they’re less experienced or newer members. There could be a document where group members can contribute questions and concerns anonymously or a designated team member with whom others should bring these up.

Bring in outsiders. Chances are, you won’t have an in-group expert on every aspect of a project. Bringing in outside specialists to investigate the group’s ideas can ensure that nothing is overlooked or ignored if it doesn’t fit neatly into the group’s vision.

Allow extra time. Often, tight deadlines can exacerbate the problems of groupthink because it’s easier to just “get it done” in the easiest way than to really inspect the work. Teams should always build extra time into projects for decisions to be examined and reconsidered before anything is permanent.

Avoiding The Dangers of Groupthink:

Groupthink is a risk when many people work together closely for an extended period. That kind of group cohesiveness can produce amazing results. So why is groupthink bad? It can also lead to poor decisions because the group’s assumptions aren’t regularly questioned.

While most are aware of groupthink in workplace environments, it can also appear in personal and societal contexts.

Just as individual innovators have to constantly question the status quo in the world at large in order to come up with truly new ideas, this same process has to play out in groups of innovators, businesses, families, and society.

Please contact me to learn more about what makes successful, innovative teams.

BlogCareerLeadershipbad decisionsgroup thinkgroupthinkherdinnovateIrving Janisself-appointed mindguards

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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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