5 Strategies to Avoid Groupthink

Josh Hay

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Have you ever thought of speaking up in a group setting and then stopped yourself? Why did you stay silent? Were you scared of appearing unsupportive, worried about sounding unintelligent, or doubting the validity of your idea? We all censor ourselves. We question our own common sense, second guess our alternative perspective, or think our idea is so obvious that everyone else must have thought of it already. Censoring ourselves can be dangerous because it plays right into groupthink.

Irving Janis coined the term ‘groupthink’ in his 1972 book, Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. ‘Groupthink’ occurs when conformity to a group and its ideals is so strong that it limits creativity in the decision-making process. However, Janis asserts that the best decisions are the result of healthy conflict, opposing viewpoints, and alternative perspectives.

It is interesting that groups with strong collective identities are the most vulnerable to groupthink. Consider political camps and religious cults as extreme examples that foster like mindedness, while at the same time repelling divergent views. There is a propensity in cohesive workplaces, where management and staff are committed to the vision and mission of an organization, to maintain a sense of collective agreement that can inadvertently hinder creativity, productivity, and innovation.

Here are a few ideas to help you avoid groupthink at your next team meeting:

1. Give people the agenda ahead of time so they can plan their contributions. Many people are nervous speaking off-the-cuff in front of others. If you clearly articulate the issues to be addressed and the information you’re looking for, group members can decide what they wish to contribute in advance.

2. Ask everyone to bring two ideas to contribute. Give each person time to speak, and be comfortable with silences. This is especially important if you have a few outspoken people who typically take over or dominate meetings.

3. Let people contribute in different ways. Some people will be reluctant to speak up in a group setting, even when given the chance to prepare. This doesn’t mean their ideas aren’t worth hearing! Encourage people to email you with follow-up ideas, or to meet one-on-one. Perhaps give people the option to submit written ideas before the start of the meeting instead of having to voice them out loud.

4. Argue the other side. If you feel the group is being swayed unfairly and falling into a groupthink mentality, try playing the devil’s advocate. Ask team members to present the pros and cons of the proposed idea. Try arguing for a different side and see how many people in the room were being swayed by the delivery of the idea and not its content.

5. Have a plan B. After a decision has been reached, draw up a contingency plan. What if plan A isn’t as good as the group believed? Many decisions fall short, not because they were poorly considered, but because circumstances changed or new information came to light and the group or organization wasn’t prepared. When a group is emotionally invested in a plan, coming up with another that is legitimate and valid is more difficult than it appears, but it is worth the effort and may ultimately avert disaster.

We want strong teams. We want to all get along. We strive to have workplaces where we identify and are working for the same goal. Knowing how to keep the group strong and connected is crucial – but at the same time we never want to mistake this as our only priority. Our goal is to create a safe and respectful workplace which at the same time fosters growth, creativity, and productivity.

Wendy Loewen, Trainer
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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