Everybody wants to be a “team player”, getting along with other members of a group, so much so that you might find yourself censoring yourself in order to fit in and not rock the boat. Getting along with team members is very important group behavior, but it leads to the possibility of the team doing the wrong thing because one or more members didn’t speak up when they felt they should have. In psychology, this situation is known as groupthink.

How Groupthink Works

Groupthink is very dangerous because it presents itself as acting in the best interests of the team. Someone who realizes that their team is doing its job incorrectly might not warn others of this because they don’t want to be seen as disloyal, or possibly upstaging the team leader. In this way, it’s possible that a team member could not even understand the danger of not drawing attention to the problem, because they feel satisfied that their silence has not harmed the progress of the group. Nobody wants to be “that guy”, after all, the one who’s constantly second-guessing the team’s decisions.

For some groups, especially those that have very strict ranks (executives, seniors and juniors, for example) speaking out might be actively discouraged, especially if the person doing the speaking has a low rank (or inexperience) within the team (“We don’t pay you to make our senior team members look bad with all your questions about their plan”). This happens if the leaders of the team want to present a unified, solid front (to competitors and/or customers, for example), and you can’t have a solid team if people are constantly nitpicking plans and decisions.

Symptoms and an Example of Groupthink

A team that is stuck in groupthink mode thinks it’s invulnerable - after all, they have no one to tell them when they’re doing something wrong. And if everybody’s on the same page, then the team is so convinced of how right it is, and everybody feels so good to be a part of the team. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a team feeling good, but if the team feels it can do no wrong, then that’s a problem.

For example: after the September 11 attacks, certain members of the George W. Bush administration felt pressured to agree with the larger consensus of invading Iraq in 2003. It was strongly felt that something needed to be done in response to the attacks, that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and disagreement with the consensus would be seen as disloyal, or an act of betraying the common good.

Eliminating Groupthink

If a leader wants to eliminate the conditions that can lead to groupthink, here are some things that he or she can do:

remove themselves from team meetings. If a manager hovers around their team, people in the team will consciously or subconsciously defer judgement to the manager, instead of trusting their own experience and intuition. A good manager will give his or her team some space to come up with their own, honest ideas.

constantly remind team members that they are free to air concerns or disagreements, and to take these disagreements seriously. A leader actively asking team members to play the Devil’s Advocate, and taking their perspectives into account, not only makes employees speak up when they notice a problem, it makes them feel like they are truly valued by their boss.

Groupthink: When Groups Think and People Don’t

There’s a common phrase that can be used to sum up groupthink: when everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking. Or, to put it more bluntly, if everyone is thinking the same thing, that means nobody is thinking. Groupthink suckers teams and groups into assuming that everyone agrees with one another, and to charge headlong because everybody feels great and no one raised a dissenting voice. An organization or team that does not encourage people to speak up when they feel something is wrong is doomed.

Author's Bio: 

Lisa Rezac is Vice President of Instruction for the Western region at the Leaders Institute http://www.leadersinstitute.com, a soft-skills training company focusing on team building, public speaking and leadership development. She is based in Seattle, Washington and covers the West coast but also travels nationwide for her clients.