Groupthink is so devastating to organizations and people that it has been warned against for nearly 50 years. Yet it still thrives in today’s corporate cultures, permeating teams and operations and failed initiative after failed initiative. Where groupthink is deeply ensconced, it is difficult to see and feel effects as they happen. People are desensitized to ‘the way things are.’
If there were ever a time to put a stop that, it’s now. No more companies or careers should fail because of it. Know how to recognize groupthink and jump out of the pot before it’s too late. Yes, the boiling frog metaphor is apropos here, where the water temperature gradually increases from cold to hot, and the frog doesn’t know it is being boiled alive.
It only takes minutes for water to boil, and that’s all it takes to make bad business decisions when no one is challenging the status quo.
Are You Feeling the Heat?
Since the concept was first introduced in the 1970s by psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink has become known by a lot of different names. Some of these might resonate more with your own experiences. Echo chamber is a big one. Decision-by-committee is another. Am I getting warmer? Silo mentality, narrow-minded decisions, shortsighted planning – however it’s coined, groupthink is a danger zone in which select views dominate and alternative points of view are discarded.
Groupthink is most often perpetuated by leaders who impose their opinions and views on groups, hence the origin of the name. Here’s what happens when freedom to explore other thoughts and ideas is taken away from members of a group:
- Problems become fixed: People do not speak up to correct other group members’ errors or ill-considered solutions. As a result, mistakes are often perpetuated.
- Best-case solutions are rarely reached: Single-perspective answers cannot solve what are often multidimensional business issues. They also cannot fully leverage opportunities.
- Creativity and innovation are stifled: Groups focus on what everyone already knows or has previously been tried, with or without success – instead of finding newer, better ways.
- Groups become polarized and less effective: Curbing influences within the group, or marginalizing members, restricts the flow of information to what is contributed by few. This simultaneously discourages individual responsibility and accountability.
Three Ways to Challenge Groupthink
If you see groupthink happening in your group or organization, it’s time to rise up and personify new ways of thinking, creating, and problem solving. If you have tried to voice counter-opinions only to be shot down, sharpen your strategy with these tips and never stop trying:
- Challenge the Consensus: The biggest reason people fall into groupthink is fear of going against the grain, countering the views of superiors and other group members. Disagreeing to disagree is not the answer! This is not the time to please, appease, or get along. Instead, listen intently to others. Gather information and explore your own ideas, and then devise and present a solid, objective approach that solves the problem, seizes the opportunity, or improves the process. Ensure your view speaks to the ultimate goal. Consider the costs and potential risks. Thoroughly examine your alternative, and get an outside perspective if you need a good sounding board before presenting your thoughts to the group.
- Be prepared for hecklers because they’re coming: I think the jury is still out on who originally said this, but it’s relevant: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Here’s how to navigate the drama. Before raising an alternative viewpoint, idea, or approach, fully anticipate that others will poke holes in it. Welcome this, and be ready to make your case with simple, easily understood information. When you prepare for adversity, your respectful, well-defined, and thoughtfully presented counter-opinion will be hard to ignore. And once interest is established, you are in a great position to help the group assess and work out the details.
- Be willing to teach with patience and empathy: Most people avoid counterviews because they are unable to comprehend them, and therefore, unable to grasp and lead or support the initiative. I once had a client who disagreed with a strategy strictly because he couldn’t understand the model. It was so far outside his very traditional approach that he refused to even consider the change. Such walls can seem even more impenetrable with a group of people – but you can break through it. Use your willingness to dissent and ability to think independently to help others understand your sole mission is about their success and that of the organization. Once they know that, their eyes and ears will open to you.
For Winners, the Only Constant Is Change
Rebelling against the echo chamber in favor of vigorous group interaction takes backbone but truly, disruption of the status quo is the only way forward in today’s environment.
In a recent call-to-arms on creativity for our current period of economic and cultural distress, Vice President of Product Design at Hulu John S. Couch said, “What creative people do can be disruptive to the stability of most companies and most countries, in terms of power structures. And yet at the same time, creativity is the most coveted, because it’s akin to having the DNA mutation in evolution that causes survival to happen.” As examples, Couch noted companies born during the 2008 recession, such as Airbnb, Uber, and Pinterest, and he also cited how Picasso was probably his most prolific during WWII, during the Nazi occupation of France.
It is the same for our current challenges. Fresh, independent thinking will be central to survival for many companies. Gird yourself to battle groupthink in your organization. Let your coveted DNA for creativity shine. And at times if you feel like the odd person out, don’t get discouraged or feel alone. Remember the mantras of other great innovators of our time:
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” — Steve Jobs, 1997