The Dangers of Groupthink

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As a skier, I was mesmerized by the heart-pounding story of skiers caught in a 2012 avalanche near the Stevens Pass ski area in Washington. Yet, I was struck by the fact that these highly experienced skiers eagerly joined in for some out-of-bounds skiing during extreme avalanche-prone conditions. They all knew better. They all went along anyway. What an example of groupthink! Sadly, three of them died in the inevitable avalanche.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon in which everyone in a group goes along with a decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. The desire for harmony or conformity is so strong that no one dares to say, “Wait a minute, this may not be such a good idea.” And it happens all the time in the workplace.

Signs that a group is engaging in groupthink include collectively rationalizing its decisions, demonizing those who are not part of the group, and maintaining a culture of uniformity in which individuals censor themselves so as not to obstruct that unanimity.

Additional symptoms include the illusion of invulnerability, rationalization of warnings, the tendency to overlook negatives, and the fear of challenging a decision.

The well-known story about the Abilene paradox is a compelling example of groupthink. This story, in which a family takes a miserable car trip during a hot summer day even though none of them wanted to go, highlights how easily faulty decisions can arise within a group.

Trouble is, although we’re all smart enough to appreciate the dangers and risks of groupthink, most of us are susceptible to it. For example, have you ever wanted to raise an issue in a team meeting but refrained so as not to interfere with the team’s decision or to avoid being the only unsupportive member of the team?

Among the steps you can take to prevent groupthink: encourage group members to raise objections and concerns, seek input from outside experts, and require the group to develop scenarios of how events might play out. Diligently avoid a no-criticism culture and a no-criticism decision-making policy.

In addition, for important decisions, have someone serve as devil’s advocate to challenge the thinking behind a group’s decision. This can be someone from within the team. Or hire someone to be a permanent devil’s advocate, as described in one of my favorite books, The Corporate Fool, by David Firth. The job of the corporate fool is to challenge the consensus when others can’t or won’t see the risks and dangers they may be facing.

True, most organizations won’t hire a corporate fool, and people who persistently challenge decisions quickly make themselves unwelcome. But a group in which people feel comfortable raising concerns is more likely to make good decisions, up to and including avoiding death in an avalanche.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.