Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook examine groupthink and how it can undermine teams’ decision-making capability.
There are few people working in organisations who do not acknowledge the essential importance of teamwork, but at the same time most are realistic enough to recognise that effective teamwork also requires effort. This has been particularly so recently, when people have been required to put in a lot of extra effort to make things happen.
Throughout this current long period of hybrid working and homeworking, a lot of attention has been placed on how to maintain communications and a climate where teams can still function. The L&D and HR functions have played an important part in suggesting strategies to keep everybody involved in the business and not feel isolated and demotivated.
Virtual social interaction such as for example, quizzes and online coffee sessions, have undoubtedly helped to maintain morale and a sense of togetherness. Now it is time to turn attention to building up team decision-making.
Attention to team decision-making
At their best, teams can produce extraordinary results; they can use the multiple perspectives from team members to come up with fresh new ideas and solve difficult problems. Teams working together can critically examine and strengthen outcomes and sometimes the creative spark of ideas has helped to move things forward at an accelerated pace.
People working together in harmony can do a lot to make progress, but in excess it carries dangers. What looks like a strength – harmony in a team – can eat away at good decision-making. It can lead to teams becoming very satisfied with extremely poor decisions by failing to critically examine issues and so come up with patchy results.
Government at the highest level can fall foul of such problems. Some reportedly poor aspects of team-working and decision-making were dramatically highlighted when Dominic Cummings recently appeared before a House of Commons select committee over handling of the pandemic.
Undoubtedly, the way a leader manages the team has a profound effect on what behaviours and culture are encouraged.
Cummings was scathing about the quality of Government decision-making at Cabinet level and of the top-level committees of experts that had been assembled to advise the Cabinet. One of his biggest criticisms which he voiced time and time again was some seriously faulty mistakes made through a process called groupthink.
Environments where groupthink thrives typically over-value harmony and avoidance of conflict. Groupthink is more common than is generally understood and has profound effects on key decision-making in teams.
What is groupthink and what are its consequences
Groupthink is a term that was devised by Yale academic Irving Janis in 1971 to describe how decisions at the most senior level can go dramatically and catastrophically wrong.
Janis had conducted extensive research on group decision-making under conditions of stress. He found that in a situation where groupthink prevails, individuals tend to keep quiet from expressing doubts and reserving judgments which disagree with the consensus.
The result? Assumptions and flaws are passed over and swallowed hook, line and sinker with team decisions rationalised and aggressively defended, even to the point of bullying or ignoring morals. Groupthink behaviour is found in many situations and across many groups and team settings.
As L&D, we need to get to grips with this underlying pattern of team behaviour so that, collectively and individually, teams can make better choices and reach better, more rounded decisions.
Surely, you may say, such distorted behaviour couldn’t happen in your teams? To be more aware, let’s look into the process more fully:
Preconditions and warning signs
Under conditions of intense threat and stress, there is pressure to get agreement and make decisions quickly. An ‘us and them’ feeling can build up and any dissenters are likely to feel pressure to conform at the risk of being shunned or derided.
If you spot these signs, are there any other key signs, particularly a strong, persuasive group leader who encourages a high level of group cohesion? If so, the risk is there for groupthink to dominate decisions and behaviours. If these ring any bells, then look deeper into a cluster of warning signals:
- Sticking together as a group is viewed as more important than freedom to speak up and the group operates in an insulated atmosphere. Members’ social backgrounds and ideology are similar: member reinforce each other as ‘one of us’.
- Rather than seeking out information, they focus on the possibilities where they already have information.
- They home in on a small range of possibilities and the downsides of their preferred option are played down. They don’t spend enough time searching for information and once an idea is discarded, it is off the table for good. They don’t put in place a fall-back.
- The team overestimates its invulnerability and self-belief in its high moral stance – it starts to believe its own propaganda and rightness.
Ways to avoid groupthink and how L&D can help
Review leadership style
Undoubtedly, the way a leader manages the team has a profound effect on what behaviours and culture are encouraged. An open style of leader encourages others to express opinions and put forward counter-arguments. Whatever style, discussion of culturally appropriate leadership behaviours should be an important discussion which will then feature in HR and L&D’s recruitment, development and coaching plans.
Create a healthy and open climate for decisions
Some leaders cultivate a climate of unease, so that people fear conflict, keep their heads down and tend towards groupthink. This can weaken commitment to decisions and responsibility for actions. In his book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, management consultant Lencioni describes his research into teams that display inability to work together effectively.
According to Lencioni, the absence of trust – demonstrated by defensiveness in a team, means that team members seek artificial harmony over constructive debate.
To build a healthy and open climate, the team leader needs to encourage people to take time to get to know each other on a personal as well as a business level. Sharing learning from mistakes and role modelling consideration for others can also help build a trusting environment.
Encourage team discussion on how decisions are made
With L&D acting as observers and facilitators, promote a discussion on the process of team decision making: how long was the process? Who spoke? How many options were considered? Was diversity of views sought and given?
Try out new ways to arrive at decisions
Not all of these will work for every team, but here are some suggestions to break away from old habits which L&D can suggest for team meetings:
- Set up small-group work before coming together as a team to share, thereby giving everyone a say.
- Evaluate every new idea, not just a shortlist of the top ones, using a scoring system.
- Ask one person – not the normal chair – to summarise the discussion periodically.
- Nominate for each meeting someone to ask probing questions and present a counter argument as a ‘devil’s advocate’. This avoids closing one’s mind prematurely once a decision has been taken.
- Review the diversity of the team, including diversity of thought, to encourage fresh perspectives and take action where necessary to avoid unaware uniformity.
- Consider ‘What’s the best and worst scenario’? This is another way of broadening perspectives: review best and worst cases and their implications. This avoids closing one’s minds prematurely.
Checklists to help avoid groupthink
Two checklists prompt ways to tackle signs of groupthink in your team.
Topics for discussion
As an aid to considering team decisions, for each team focus on a recent substantial team decision and review with the team how far the team took steps to adopt thorough decision making to:
- Fully assess the risks associated with the team decision;
- Reconsider discarded alternatives before moving on with majority group decision;
- Seek out expert advice;
- Use a range of information, not just what supports one position and its conclusion;
- Make Plan B contingency plans.
Actions to avoid groupthink
Discuss with the team how they could adopt the following to counter risks of groupthink, putting them in priority order of what will work.
- Members to raise objections and concerns while still aiming to reach agreement;
- Leader to initially stay silent, then put forward views and preferences after team discussion;
- Splitting the team into smaller groups before finally meeting together
- Allowing group members to get feedback on the group’s decisions from those on the receiving end;
- Seeking input from experts outside the group;
- Assigning one member per meeting to act as ‘devil’s advocate’.
Disturbingly, groupthink is prevalent in many organisations. With practice, by putting in place a process for challenge and discussion that will work in your organisation, ultimately decisions will be more thorough and have greater buy-in which will deliver longer term effectiveness.
About the authors
Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook are development specialists who focus on helping managers and organisations to achieve change using tailored development approaches. Steve is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development, Sarah is Managing Director of The Stairway Consultancy. Steve can be contacted at email@example.com; Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, Lencioni P, 2002, Jossey Bass, San Francisco.