Thinking like a group? Part I

Groupthink has been written about way too much. If we know what it is, why does it still exist so prevalently? If we know how to combat it, why are we going to be continually fighting it? If it’s been written about it so much, why am I writing about it?

Expert’s Input: In A brief history of groupthink, Kathrin Lassila talks about psychologist Irving Janis (the Father of Groupthink) who explained “… how a group of intelligent people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer. He called it ‘groupthink’.” The article goes on to say those in the group: “… adhere to group norms and pressures toward uniformity, even when their policy was working badly and had unintended consequences that disturbed the conscience of the members.” He continues: “Members consider loyalty to the group the highest form of morality.”

In terms of project management what a devastating place to be. Later in the same article he says: “Each member is likely to become more dependent than ever on the in-group for maintaining his self-image as a decent human being and will therefore be more strongly motivated to maintain group unity.”Groupthink

It’s bewildering to think that group members will stick to the group and its direction even when that direction has already proven wrong. That they will continue to support that direction until the group or leader decides otherwise. Even when outside solutions or possible alternatives are presented, we’re apt to ignore outright in favor of the groups direction.

What thought is further disconcerting is that even if we acknowledge internally that the direction is incorrect, we look to the group to justify our decisions further cementing ourselves in a viscous cycle or blind support-acknowledgement-justification and then support again. This is the extreme end of groupthink but in the face of our internal struggle either with the morality of the decision, or our own integrity, we rely on the group more and more to justify our illusion that the group’s decision is the right direction. That the group’s reliance becomes our justification.

Expert’s Input: In a blog about Communication Theory, they discuss Groupthink they list Janis’s eight symptoms of group think:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability: Displays of excessive optimism and take big risks.
  2. Collective Rationalization: Rationalize thoughts or suggestions that challenge what the majority is thinking.
  3. Belief in Inherent morality of the group: That whatever the group does it will be right as they all know the difference between right and wrong.
  4. Out – Group Stereotypes: Belief that those who disagree are opposed to the group on purpose.
  5. Direct Pressure on Dissenters: Majority directly threatens those who questions the decisions by telling them that they can always leave the group if they don’t want to agree with the majority.
  6. Self – Censorship: Belief that if they are the only odd one out then they must be the one who is wrong.
  7. Illusions of unanimity: Silence from some is considered to be acceptance of the majority’s decision.
  8. Self – Appointed Mind Guards: Members who take it upon themselves to discourage alternative ideas from being expressed.

So, what drives us to this place? Is it because in the beginning when the group or team is assembled for the project, there is a strong sense of “we”? In all likelihood that “we” is very positive and very healthy for the team as a launching point. But, can it be that this very sense of togetherness can become the projects downfall? The problem might be that in the beginning the team is all in agreement and seemingly for the right reasons. Is it our clarity of vision and unified spirit that opens the door for groupthink down the road?

Expert’s Input: In Groupthink: The Role of Leadership in Enhancing and Mitigating the Pitfall in Team Decision-Making, Arpita Das Behl talks about the “Antecedent Conditions for Groupthink according to Janis and Mann:”

  1. High Cohesiveness within the group
  2. Insulation of the group from outside sources of information
  3. Lack of methodical procedures for information search and appraisal
  4. Directive Leadership
  5. Homogeneity in members’ backgrounds
  6. A high stress situation with little hope of finding a better solution than the one advocated by the leader.
  7. The absence of disagreement

Homogeneity of the member’s backgrounds with high cohesiveness and the absence of disagreement. All seeds that can be planted in the formation of your team from the very start. So how do you combat this in the beginning? The author goes on: “A leader is one who has the ability to influence members of a team to work effectively towards their goals. Leader behavior strongly influences the number of alternative solutions proposed and discussed by groups and the actual final decisions made by them.”

So, we have it within ourselves to determine the direction our team is going to go and the question now becomes what kind of leader can handle this? The author goes on: “Cognitively complex and open leaders are more receptive to new information and are thus more flexible about their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts. While Janis model of groupthink emphasizes that members get influenced by the leader’s suggestions because they identify with the leader’s values and goals.”

Before we ever choose your team or step into the leadership position, we should be asking ourselves, no, challenging ourselves are we going to be “complex and open” or “simple and closed”? You already know which one is going to take more work but it will also yield the most positive results for our team and the project. So, not that the groundwork is laid and we’ve established the type of leader that’s going to be necessary to avoid groupthink, what additional steps can we take?

Expert’s Input: Art Petty has a great list in 6 Steps for Avoiding Groupthink on Your Team Here is the list with some descriptive omissions

  1. Anticipate Groupthink in your Risk Plan.While it might sound like planning to fail, Devil's Advocateignoring the potential for Groupthink is a failure to plan for a very real risk.
  2. Size counts.Limit the typical team size to less than 10 and ensure that there are well-defined boundaries for inclusion.
  3. Invite external perspectives at various stages of the process.  Have the procedures in place to both protect external viewpoints and to find ways to incorporate them into the group’s thinking and plans.
  4. Lengthen the discussion phase…use structured discussion to focus on vetting the issues.  Delay a rush to judgment.
  5. Develop a second solutio Challenge your team to assume that management will reject their first solution.
  6. Invite the Devil’s Advocate to the party.Someone that will be throwing rocks at the groups beautiful picture.

Number one and number six strike me as being the most difficult. First: it’s not easy openly acknowledging the possibility of groupthink. But the power of it is almost tangible. Can you imagine opening up your first meeting with “Okay, I’m excited your all here now let’s acknowledge that groupthink is real, that we’re all responsible for it and that as well as holding myself accountable, I’m holding you accountable for not letting it creep in”. Well that’s a good start but what do you do then? Acknowledging it might not be enough. An open discussion about what it is, and how to fight it would probably do the most to ensure the absence of groupthink.

Second, inviting the devil’s advocate to the party; this is really difficult. You know that individual, the one that no matter what’s said they’re not in agreement, they have better ideas, and they have done it differently in the past. You need that individual in your group. Regardless if their ideas are great or they have more experience than the rest of the team, they will question and that questioning is going to allow you and your team enough pause to consider the validity of the current decision making process and also hopefully the validity of outside expertise, sources, and ideas.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about groupthink focusing on other types of groupthink, more on how to steer clear, and is all group think bad? I know you’re TOTOALLY EXCITED but be patient and in the meantime, evaluate the type of leader you are or want to be: complex and open or simple and closed. I know the “open” part is a challenge for me.

Image Credit: Sketches by Author

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