Groupthink: The company ‘A-Hole’ and why you need one

I’m sure you all know one. That person that’s always trying to poke holes in your work, the one that never seems to be satisfied, the one that you get frustrated with because it seems like things are never good enough to escape their critique. Well, believe it or not, this person is a very important role inside of your company and more importantly inside your social networks to avoid a phenomenon called “Groupthink”.  Groupthink is a mode that a group of people gets into when they desire harmony in decision making without a realistic appraisal of alternatives and where there is a desire to minimize conflict.

Sure, we all want harmony in decision making, that makes our jobs easier, but does it give us the best decision? Most likely not. Let’s face it, how many times have we been in the situation where we know what we’re doing isn’t right, but the effort required is just too great considering your workload or the political cost?  When you add a boss’s opinion to the mix, the chance that the group will align with his/her opinion is very high, despite the fact that it could possibly be the worst possible approach.

Groupthink was first researched by Irving Janis, a psychologist from Yale. In 1972, he defined Groupthink as “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the member’s strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.

The cause of this is even more evident in the fact that the way our brain works, we tend to gravitate toward strategies that we’ve used in the past to solve problems. As a group, you tend to get into this collective “groove” and in fact, assume a role in the group dynamic, out of habit, even though each situation may require that you fill a different role. By being challenged, it forces us to step back and re-evaluate and attempt to apply new strategies to solve the problem, often resulting in better outcomes.

Groupthink has many case studies in both military and corporate situations. A recent  article from The Telegraph cites that groupthink may have been partially responsible for the recent financial crisis. Emma Rowley points out, “the crisis was marked by ‘overconfidence’ in the health of big financial institutions, while the prevailing view was that market discipline and self-regulation were enough to stave off serious problems, the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) found.”

More recently, Groupthink was called out by author David McRaney in his book You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. He describes the misconception that problems are easier to solve when a group of people get together to discuss solutions. And outlines the truth as “The desire to reach consensus and avoid confrontation hinders progress.”

“True groupthink depends on three conditions—a group of people who like one another, isolation, and a deadline for a crucial decision. It turns out, for any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated. For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their mind without risk of punishment.” – David McRaney

In Enterprise Social Networking (ESN), this was my role at Alcatel-Lucent. Although, I prefer other labels such as; pot stirrer, corporate troublemaker, instigator and maverick. Recently I found perhaps the best label: Critical Evaluator. It’s important not to confuse this role with that of a person who is disgruntled and unsupportive. Often the critical evaluator is not just challenging the decision, but offering alternative solutions and looking for the best outcomes. For me personally, I used my opinion or critique as it as an opportunity to start a conversation, not end one.

What is clear is that ESN’s are fertile ground for groupthink and that if you are not acutely aware of that, you will most likely participate as part of an ingroup.

Janis came up with 7 ways to prevent Groupthink which are fairly straightforward:

  1. Leaders should assign the role of  “critical evaluator” to all group members
  2. Higher-ups should not express their opinion when assigning tasks to a group
  3. Have multiple groups look at the problem
  4. Look at all effective alternatives
  5. Each group member should discuss the challenge with people outside the group
  6. The group should bring in outside experts to the meetings/discussion
  7. Assign at least one Devil’s Advocate. This should be a different person at each meeting

Perhaps in our new service based economy, the pressure to “do more with less” is so great that we are incapable of delivering the highest quality work in the timeframes required without groupthink. Let’s be honest, being challenged and working through alternatives take time and energy, and if not closely guarded can lead to another phenomenon called Analysis Paralysis. It’s hard work and requires a careful balance between being disruptive and pragmatic. When done properly, critical evaluation leads to high quality work output that can have a huge positive impact on your company.

The world of Enterprise Social Networking has great potential to enable us to work in new ways, with new people and solve problems that in the past were unsolvable. Beware of groupthink to ensure that you ESN doesn’t become the facilitator for harmonious decision making without critical evaluation.

I’d love to hear your stories around groupthink and have you share how you dealt with them.

Greg Lowe

Greg constructively challenges the status quo to achieve real change in organizations. With a background in IT, communications and collaboration, Greg is passionate about making technology usable to make people’s jobs easier and changing the way companies do business. He does this by demonstrating value through building business cases and leading organizations to develop and support new behaviors, by working with leadership to help them understand how and why to leverage social business systems within their enterprise to achieve better business outcomes. He also writes and speaks about strategies and tactics that can be employed by companies to drive success in the Social Business space.

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10 Replies to “Groupthink: The company ‘A-Hole’ and why you need one”

  1. Great job, Greg, articulating human behavior issues that stifle SO MANY great companies. As soon as we individually succumb to the desire for unity and harmony at the cost of greater profits or reduced risks, we become sell-outs to the system. However to relentlessly push pass your comfort zone by asking the tough questions, the right questions, for the greater good of the company, that’s when we see status quo become the next innovation. Leadership pride can clearly be in the way of a good provocatuer trying to make a difference for the benfit of their company. As with everything there’s a risk/reward ratio. Sure, everyone wants to be accepted, to not feel alone, to not be ousted, but deeper still is the human desire to truly make a difference that counts. Hope you will continue to be the “critial evaluator” that will drive success wherever you serve.

  2. Greg, I read the HBR article as well and saw your comment. I love “Critical Evaluator” and think I may steal that. That’s not what I’ve been called, of course, but it fits what I think I am doing when I challenge.

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