Is your team coming up with the best possible ideas to solve important problems? You might not know for sure, but one way to predict they’re not is if your team has fallen victim to groupthink. But it could be costing you more than a great idea; it could be costing you revenue or even breaches of ethics!
Fortunately, there are strategies to overcome groupthink so you can be sure you’re generating the best ideas for your team!
In this article, we’ll look at what groupthink is, signs to look out for, causes, and tips to help you avoid it. Let’s dive in!
What is Groupthink? (Definition)
Groupthink is when a group of people tend to agree with and conform to each other’s views based on a set of shared assumptions about the others in the group, including beliefs, biases, morals, and perceptions. The downside to this tendency to conform often means the group misses out on the valuable voices or opposing ideas in (and outside) the group, leading to poor decision-making or even risky outcomes.
Groupthink is most common in dysfunctional situations where groups:
- are insulated, close-minded, and feel pressure to conform
- lack diversity and psychological safety
- are stressed or have time constraints
It should be noted that having a shared vision, goals, or values is not the same as groupthink. Instead, groupthink has more to do with conformity and unquestioned bias to follow the status quo.
How do you know if your group is prone to groupthink? Pay attention to the signs and causes below.
Pros and Cons of Groupthink
While there are “pros” to groupthink, it should be noted that the “pros” should not always be viewed as positive. It’s important to consider that groupthink tends to demand loyalty, favor prejudice and biased thinking, and ignore the warning signs of potentially risky decisions.
Pros of Groupthink:
- Quicker decision-making (but not always the best decision)
- Reduces anxiety (because “the group knows best”)
- Promotes positive thinking (but avoids facing blindspots)
- Assumes the best (because “everyone thinks like me”)
- Sees big risk as an opportunity (because “we always know best”)
- Alignment (because people tend to fear disagreement with the group)
Cons of Groupthink:
- Silences dissenting voices
- Prevents the best possible solution
- Ignores warning signs
- Increases risky decision making
- Promotes biased thinking
- Accepts narcissistic leadership
Characteristics and Signs of Groupthink
When consensus becomes more important than solving problems, a group is more likely to fall into groupthink. Based on research1http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Lunenburg,%20Fred%20C.%20Group%20Decision%20Making%20IJMBA%20V13%20N1%202010.pdf done by psychologist Irving Janis, some common signs of groupthink include:
- Extreme optimism: When the majority of the group fails to see their vulnerability, they tend to develop an extreme sense of optimism, ignoring their blind spots. This sense of optimism leads the group to take bigger risks than they might with all the facts on the table. “Everyone loves our products. There’s nothing wrong. Let’s invest in X.”
- Ignoring warning signs: When a group rationalizes and reconciles away their doubts and assumptions to conform to consensus, they may fail to see important warning signs in a potentially poor decision or situation. “Something feels off, but it’s probably not that bad.”
- Assuming morality: When the people in a group assume all members possess inherent morality and good judgment, the group may be more likely to ignore potential ethical issues in their decision-making. “I believe you’re a good person, so you must make good decisions.”
- Demonizing outside views: When a group stereotypes outside views as “bad” or “stupid,” the person or “outsider” might become the “other” or the “enemy” to the group’s efforts, leading group members to avoid speaking up about potential issues as well. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not like us. Only we can come up with the best solution.”
- Requiring loyalty: When a group disapproves of dissenting voices from within the group, pressure is usually applied to conform and ensure loyalty. Any question to a group’s ideals or potential false assumptions is seen as disloyal. “Since you question our ideas and way of doing things, you are not for us. You are against us.”
- Self-censorship: When a group starts to develop consensus (both real and assumed) around certain ideas, those with different ideas or doubts tend to hold back for fear of coming off as disloyal or creating conflict. “I think there are potential issues here, but I’m probably wrong because everyone else seems to agree. I’ll stay silent.”
- Same-page assumptions: When a group is under the impression that everyone is on the same page about how they think about things, it’s harder for someone with a different view to speak up. There’s an illusion of unanimous thinking, and silence often means agreement with the assumed reality or the loudest voice in the group. “Everyone seems to agree with this. No one is saying anything different, so it must be right.”
- Self-appointed censors: Also called “mindguards,” self-appointed censors are people in the group who seek to control the thinking process. They tend to ensure people are aligned on assumed beliefs and may even prevent or manipulate how information is shared. “This is how we’ve always done it. Let’s stick to what we know.”
Causes of Groupthink
- Group cohesiveness2https://dictionary.apa.org/group-cohesion, according to Janis1http://www.nationalforum.com/Electronic%20Journal%20Volumes/Lunenburg,%20Fred%20C.%20Group%20Decision%20Making%20IJMBA%20V13%20N1%202010.pdf, is a common cause of groupthink due to a tendency and desire to belong. To challenge or oppose an idea in the group, an individual may risk losing the feeling of belonging. Note: group cohesiveness is not in and of itself a negative, but at its worst, and without self-awareness, it can lead to groupthink.
- Insulation/lack of outside perspective is a common cause of groupthink because the group members may not be exposed to different ideas that may challenge the status quo they’ve built within their group.
- A self-promoting leader or a narcissist who is perceived by the group as powerful or representing their ideals may cause a group to fall into groupthink because of their tendency to make decisions that default to pleasing the leader rather than challenging his or her ideas.
- Lack of diversity is another common cause of groupthink due to the lack of different perspectives represented in the group itself.
- Stressful or time-constrained situations can cause an otherwise healthy group to fall into groupthink because they feel pressure to get things done, leading the group to default to the loudest or most influential decision maker, not necessarily the best decision.
- Desire to belong may cause well-meaning individuals to hold back their ideas within a group, especially if they seem to go against the majority, to maintain a sense of belonging.
- Lack of psychological safety is a common cause of groupthink because individuals do not feel safe to speak up or make mistakes, leading people to hold back important ideas or any part of themselves that might go against the status quo.
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”— Amy Edmondson
What are Examples of Groupthink?
Example of Groupthink in the Workplace
When a team is more interested in consensus than solving problems, they are more prone to groupthink.
In this setting, a team may be short on time and stressed by deadlines. Someone might suggest “doing it the way we’ve always done it,” and everyone agrees. After all, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” It seems easier to follow the status quo than to develop a new idea, even if someone in the group remembers the negative pitfalls or feedback they experienced the last time.
Someone might try to bring up a competitor’s innovative approach but is quickly shut down. “That’s not right. We know best.” The team leader feels the pressure to make a decision. “Are we all in!?” No one dares say no. You’re “disloyal” to the group if you’re not all in. Ideas get left on the table, and the approach is open to risk.
Example of Groupthink in Relationships
When a group of friends is more interested in the group’s harmony, individuals often go along with the idea of the strongest opinion to avoid rocking the boat. In these settings, negative emotions are often bottled or avoided to “get along” with everyone else. To disagree is to disrupt the harmony and thus go against the group. Conflicts are rarely resolved, and bonds are often shakey.
Groupthink in the Classroom
When a group of students is in a classroom3https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232755725.pdf led by a teacher who does not value critical thinking but rather uses their influence to encourage students to agree with their ideals, these students may fall into groupthink behavior. Unfortunately, some students are discouraged from questioning their teacher or engaging in healthy debate.
Instead of critical thinking and problem-solving, they may be encouraged to memorize facts. They become dependent on definitions rather than their ability to interpret information and often lack a real understanding of the subject.
18 Strategies and Tips to Avoid Groupthink (And Possible Downfalls)
Encourage all ideas–the more, the better!
Before the start of a meeting or important discussion with a group of people, be sure to encourage all voices to share. Let people know you want to hear their best ideas, even if they might go against the status quo. This might mean pausing to ask introverts directly what they think or what ideas they have since they are the most likely to hold back.
Give vocal encouragement to the people who generate the most ideas–no matter how unique. Reward the person with the most out-of-the-box idea.
Pro Tip: You don’t have to be the group leader to encourage people to share. Be an advocate to hear different voices in the room. Ask people what they think; you don’t have to wait for a meeting moderator to ask questions and pull out ideas from others.
Want to influence more change in your context? Check out this helpful resource:
Become More Influential
Want to become an influential master? Learn these 5 laws to level up your skills.
Encourage critique and objections
To encourage critique and objection, practice curiosity. It’s not easy for someone to present an objection. It’s not always easy to hear an objection, either. If you approach these conversations with curiosity and a desire to understand another’s perspective, you can create an environment based on learning from one another without judgment.
- Review the pros and cons
- Encourage debate
- Welcome critical thinking around possible outcomes
Pro Tip: In a brainstorming session, welcoming critique and objections may unintentionally stump brainstorming. So it’s important to set some ground rules for when to bring in critique without accidentally silencing important dissenting voices.
For example, brainstorming sessions might be broken up into two phases. In the first phase, open it up to any and all ideas. In the second phase, review the pros and cons of the top three ideas.
Split the group and come back together with the findings
In some group settings, people may feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas because there are too many voices in the room, and they just don’t feel like they have an opportunity to share. In these cases, try these steps:
- Split the group up into two or more smaller groups for a portion of the meeting
- Come up with ideas separately
- Welcome smaller groups to come back together to present their ideas
Even this small splitting up of the group helps to avoid groupthink behavior and encourages more voices to share. In some cases, more influential voices can even advocate for those who may have been less inclined to share in a larger setting.
Work individually and come back to the group
Before a meeting, send an agenda to the group about the discussion you’re going to have, the problem you’re trying to solve, or the decision you’re trying to make. Ask a set of questions before the meeting, and have people come up with ideas on their own beforehand. Once you come to the meeting, welcome everyone to share the ideas they came up with individually.
There are two wins in this setup.
- First, introverts tend to work better when they can process the meeting ahead of time and what they want to share
- Second, it avoids groupthink behavior because people are less inclined to go with the first, loudest idea in the room before coming up with something on their own
Bring in an outsider
Bringing in an outside perspective can happen in several forms. For example, let’s say you’re on the marketing team and trying to develop ideas for your next campaign. Bringing in an outside perspective might look something like this:
- Hosting brainstorming sessions with other departments in your organization
- Surveying your target audience and critically reviewing the feedback
- Welcoming some of your best customers into a conversation to share their ideas
Assign a devil’s advocate
In your team or group, there is likely someone who feels more comfortable than others challenging ideas (even ideas they believe in!). If you’re the leader, ask this person to play devil’s advocate to help the group see problems and ideas from different angles.
If you’re not the leader, consider suggesting this idea to the group or the leader as a tactic to help your group make the best decisions.
Attention: Be careful! Sometimes an unintentional consequence of assigning a devil’s advocate is that it keeps people from speaking up for fear of being shut down. Set some ground rules. Be sure that you equally encourage ideas as much as you encourage objection. And don’t forget about encouraging kindness and respect.
Hold a second-chance meeting
After a decision-making meeting, people often leave, processing everything that was said. So much happens in the subconscious4https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0272989X09360820?journalCode=mdma! They recount what they shared and may even reconsider their ideas, wishing they had brought something up that they didn’t because they were afraid to.
One helpful strategy to make sure you pay attention to potential warning signs is to welcome people to share any additional thoughts in a second-chance meeting. Another way to do this is by welcoming people to share their post-meeting ideas with a moderator or leader via email and then come back together to discuss before making a final decision.
Attention: A potential downside to a continual discussion about a decision is that your group may unintentionally continue to loop around without deciding at all. At some point, a decision may need to be made, and it may not make all parties happy.
However, as long as final decision-makers have weighed all the possible outcomes from different perspectives, even parties who do not necessarily agree will be more inclined to respect the final decision.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
Let’s face it; people hate being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, discomfort and fear of rejection keep people from speaking up or engaging in conflict, even healthy conflict!
“Choose discomfort over resentment.”— Brené Brown
You can’t necessarily take away discomfort. But getting comfortable with being uncomfortable can help people speak up and share their ideas for the group’s benefit, even if it means that it might not be popular.
But how do you do this? Here are some ideas for someone who struggles with discomfort:
- Get a moral support buddy. Check-in before and after a meeting or difficult conversation.
- Imagine the best-case and worst-case scenarios. What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t speak up? What’s the best that can happen if you do?
- Practice low-key discomfort and work your way up. Start small by telling someone no to something low-stakes when you usually feel obligated to say yes.
- Say self-affirming mantras to yourself. “Others’ opinions do not define me.”
- Ask questions. The act of getting curious helps put both you and others at ease. The more you seek to understand another perspective, the more others will be willing to hear your ideas too.
Bonus Tip: You may struggle with this because you struggle with boundaries. Another way to get comfortable with discomfort is by working on setting boundaries. Need support in this area? Try these five tips to set boundaries.
Boost psychological safety
Amy C. Edmondson, popular for her research on human interactions in the workplace, suggests ways to boost psychological safety5https://hbr.org/2021/06/4-steps-to-boost-psychological-safety-at-your-workplace, some of which include:
- Practicing interpersonal skills, including candor, vulnerability, and perspective-taking
- Participating in training on interpersonal skills, including difficult conversations
There are great training opportunities you can engage in to build more psychological safety in your organization. One great place to start is by developing your people skills and communication mastery!
Diversity means more than just gender, race, and age. It should also include a diversity of thought and different ways of doing things. If you look around your group and notice that you look the same, think the same, act the same, and come to similar conclusions most of the time, it might be time to challenge yourself and your group. Research shows that diverse teams make smarter decisions6https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter because of the way they focus more on facts, process facts carefully, and are more innovative.
It may not be easy to add new members to your team or group immediately, but you can start with small steps to expose yourself to different ways of thinking, at the very least.
- Read books and articles by authors and thought leaders outside of your industry
- Follow podcasts on topics that challenge you to see a new perspective
- Ask your kids or your parents who the most influential leaders are in their generation and start to learn about them
- Watch foreign films
- Join a book club based on a topic or book outside your norm
- If you can, visit new churches, new neighborhoods, new ethnic restaurants, and new cities and start learning about new cultures
Bring in or assign a discussion moderator
One of the best ways to avoid groupthink is to bring in or assign a group moderator. It’s especially helpful if this moderator is outside of the group, but it can still be done with someone inside the group who is willing to remain objective. The responsibility of a moderator is to:
- Support leading the discussion objectively
- Ask probing “how,” “what,” and “why” questions that generate ideas
- Ask challenging questions like, “What if X were to happen?”
- Make sure all voices are being heard
- Walk through the pros, cons, and possibilities
What a moderator should not do is insert their own opinion, take over the meeting with their agenda, or come to their conclusion. A moderator is meant to support generating ideas from the group but not to make a decision for the group.
Some of the best ideas go unheard simply because of the personality makeup of a team.
Have you been in this scenario before? A well-meaning group is trying to devise a plan, and two or three people in the group take up 90% of the talking time simply because they like to process things out loud. The rest of the group listens and thinks through ideas in their own heads.
Before you know it, the introverts in the room haven’t had a chance to share a solution, and a decision has been made based on the ideas of the most talkative—not necessarily the best idea.
Here are a few ways to empower your group’s introverts:
- Provide an agenda ahead of time, sharing the problem you’re trying to solve or the decision you’re trying to make. Ask questions for them to consider with answers they can bring to the discussion.
- Go around the room and ask people for their thoughts, even if they are not voluntarily chiming in. Don’t default to popcorn conversation, allowing the talkative to dominate the discussion.
- Affirm introverts when they share and ask them to expound on their ideas.
Apply debate rules
Engaging in a healthy debate can help a group see the different sides of a situation or idea that they may not otherwise. Applying debate rules can help your group get outside of their perspective and even argue for the other side. (Note, debates may only work for black-and-white discussions.)
Here is a simple way you can apply some debate rules to your group discussion:
- Split the group into two
- Assign one group “for” and the other “against” an issue or idea
- Have each group meet separately to think through their arguments
- Return together and allow one person at a time to propose their argument (five minutes)
- Allow the opposing side to ask questions and identify areas of conflict (five minutes)
- Take a break, then have the opposing side return with a rebuttal (five minutes)
- Take another break, then have the affirming side return with their rebuttal (five minutes)
- Repeat a rebuttal with both teams
- When the debate is complete, discuss your learnings
Pro Tip: If someone has a particular opinion already formulated on an issue, put them on a team for the other side to help them get a different perspective.
Learn how to work as a team
Learning how to better work together as a team is a great way to avoid groupthink. What this doesn’t mean is learning how to all think the same thing. Rather, it’s about celebrating your differences, including strengths, perspectives, and ideas, and coming together to solve important problems.
In our article on how to promote teamwork, we outline ten essential skills. Here are some of our favorites:
- Be direct and warm with each other
- Engage in pro-social behaviors: humor, happiness, cooperation
- Learn together
- Find your ideal communication frequency
By practicing listening, you can begin to seek out the opinions and ideas in your group from those who may typically go unheard. In our article on how to talk less and listen more, we outline 15 tips. Here are some of our favorite ideas you can apply to avoid groupthink:
- Notice the signs that you’re talking too much (fidgeting, yawning, boredom, etc.)
- Embrace the sound of silence (it doesn’t need to be filled with your voice!)
- Ask more questions
- Ask yourself, How is this conversation benefiting the other person?
- Engage in active listening with eye contact, nodding, and verbal affirmations
Practice healthy conflict
Conflict is inevitable in any kind of relationship, but it doesn’t have to be negative. Healthy competition can help you gain a new perspective and build trust. It’s also a great way to avoid groupthink.
- Humanize the other. Ask them about their life and find common ground on things you can relate to.
- Ask open-ended questions that begin with “What,” “How,” and “Why.”
- Define winning. Is it to convince? Find a middle ground? Learn something new?
- Ask the golden question, “What’s something you used to believe that you no longer do?”
- Sub-communicate. Show openness in your posture, tone, and facial expression.
In our article on how to win an argument, Vanessa goes more in-depth on tips for a healthy argument.
Improve your self-awareness
Improving your self-awareness is a great way to know yourself, what you think, and how you’re perceived in a situation. It is especially critical if you’re a leader!
In a group setting, self-awareness helps you realize when you may be falling into a groupthink mindset and bring you back to your perspective. This is not to say you can’t change your mind about something. It’s ok to change your mind, of course! Instead, self-awareness helps you avoid the pitfall of agreeing with everyone else when unsure of where you stand.
For leaders, self-awareness is a great way to recognize when it’s time to check in with others who may simply agree with you because they don’t want to oppose your opinion.
For tips on improving yourself in this area, check out our article on cultivating self-awareness.
Develop your people skills
One way to avoid groupthink and connect better with others is by developing your people skills. By strengthing your ability to communicate and build relationships, you can become more self-aware and celebrate the differences in others as well.
In our article on ten essential people skills, we outline people skills you can start working on, which include:
- Social assertiveness: confidence without aggression
- Presence: a blend of skills, traits, and abilities to act, communicate, and lead well
- Communication: the bridge that connects people together
- Confidence: self-assurance in who you are
- Conversation: engaging with others through sharing and listening
- Likeability: the degree to which people gravitate toward you in a positive way
- EQ: social-emotional intelligence and awareness
- Persuasion: your ability to move people toward thinking or acting in a certain way
- Charisma: a blend of warmth and competence
- Influence: your ability to impact the people around you
Groupthink Key Takeaways
In summary, take note of these helpful tips to avoid groupthink and support the best decision in whatever context you’re in:
- Learn how to hold productive group discussions that encourage all ideas and welcome critique and objections.
- Promote an environment of psychological safety and build a team that celebrates their differences.
- Develop your people skills to become a better listener and communicator and become more self-aware.
For more ideas on how to bring out the best in those around you, check out our article, The 9 Laws of Influence: How to Be Influential (w/ Science!).
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