Janis coined the term “groupthink” to describe the type of group decision-making problem which occurs when cohesive group members’ desire to maintain good relations and achieve unanimity become superior to reaching a good decision. As traditionally conceived, groupthink occurs when in-group pressures override a group’s ability to realistically and critically evaluate options, thus leading to poor judgment and decision-making. Some scholars believe so strongly in the destructive qualities of groupthink that they argue it is the most common hazard in teamwork.

Three main factors contribute to groupthink:

  • Structural decision-making flaws, which include ignoring input from outside sources; a lack of diversity in viewpoints; acceptance of decisions without analysis; and a history of accepting leader decisions that impair the group decision-making process
  • Cohesiveness, which can unfortunately encourage groupthink by creating an environment that limits internal dissension, negotiation, and criticism
  • External pressures, which limit decision making time and encourage group members to accept the first plausible option

These factors lead to a set of eight primary symptoms indicative of groupthink:

1.    Pressure to conform, wherein group members who are viewed as dissenters are directly pressured to conform to the group consensus

2.   Collective rationalization, wherein group members insulate themselves from corrective feedback, ignoring information that may force them to reconsider their assumptions

3.    Belief in inherent morality, wherein group members believe unquestioningly in the morality of their group (or the rightness of their cause), causing them to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of decisions

4.    An illusion of invulnerability, wherein group members becoming overly-optimistic, resulting in the willingness to take unnecessary and/or extreme risks

5.    Stereotyped views of outsiders, wherein groups develop an “enemy” mindset that views leaders of opposing groups as evil or stupid, and discourages interaction or productive conflict resolution with outside groups

6.    Self-censorship, wherein group members begin to consciously avoid deviating from group consensus and censor their concerns or conflicting viewpoints

7.    An illusion of unanimity, wherein group members desire for consensus evolves into a reliance on consensual validation

8.    A desire to protect the group from opposition, wherein group members actively appoint themselves as “mindguards” to protect the group leader or other group members from adverse information that might disrupt group norms or past decisions

Leading Through Groupthink

Leaders are responsible for setting the tone of a group and by fostering an environment of open communication and acceptance of different viewpoints and ideas. Leaders should also set the precedent for group expectations and should become neutral within group decision boards, encouraging discussion without guiding outcomes. Group members should be given the tools to improve decision-making skills and to handle important problems effectively. Leaders must also help group members to understand the emotions that may arise within group negotiations, and assist navigating these emotions to search for collaborative solutions that satisfy the task at hand.

Five Tips to Avoiding Groupthink

Groupthink conformity tends to increase in tandem with group cohesiveness. As group norms become established members become more motivated to suppress critical thought to avoid conflict and preserve group harmony, which may be interpreted as consensus. This condition is especially prevalent in groups that are isolated from conflicting opinions and insulated from corrective feedback. Problem-solving and task-oriented groups are particularly susceptible, or groups in which the leader is directive. Though it is not always dominant enough to influence final decisions, most cohesive groups experience even a mild tendency towards groupthink.

A leader can employ several tips to avoid or overcome the disruption caused by groupthink:

1. Welcome diversity by intentionally diversifying a group or inviting outsiders to meetings and leverage their opinions, feedback, and ideas to enhance the quality and impartialness of a decision

2. Train group members to be critical thinkers and recognize the importance of critically analyzing ideas and decisions

3. Divide groups into subgroups to brainstorm and discuss solutions, and then converge as a whole to discuss and evaluate ideas

4. Introduce a “Devil’s Advocate” to purposely voice contrary opinion and force thoughtful discussion of alternatives, or analysis of the validity of a proposed decision

5. Hold a “second-chance” meeting to offer a final opportunity to provide input or new information before acting on a decision, especially in instances where group decisions have been achieved quickly or without thoughtful discussion.