How to identify groupthink in your company: A lack of disruptive ideas can lead to a sense of invincibility

The acts that led to Enron’s collapse have been blamed on groupthink

From the Bay of Pigs to the Enron scandal, “groupthink” has been blamed for poor decisions and excessive risk in military strategy and business alike. Coined by Irving Janis in 1972, it describes a team’s favouring of consensus and dismissal of both critical evaluation and radical alternatives. But how can you distinguish between a cohesive team with mutual values and objectives, and a group hamstrung by conformity?


Groupthink can creep in, argues Janis, if a group has recently suffered setbacks which have lowered individual’s self-esteem. Members may be inclined to follow their superiors’ decisions without question, rather than risk failure again.
Bosses may also be at fault. If a group of decision-makers has worked together for a long time, and their partnership has brought them success in the past, they may be convinced they have a winning formula, and ignore critical suggestions from their underlings. A groupthink experiment by Carrie Leana in 1985 indicated that, when solving a business crisis, teams with more authoritative leaders proposed and discussed a smaller range of solutions than those with leaders who simply participated in the process.


Disruptive thought is the enemy of groupthinkers. “Because the group is cohesive, members develop norms against dissent, and the pressure to conform becomes great,” explain Jose Ashford and Craig LeCroy in Human Behaviour in the Social Environment. When it comes to thinking of ideas for new schemes, the group’s proposals will be few, and demonstrate little variation or radical scope. Groupthinkers will actively self-censor to ensure that no unorthodox ideas are raised during meetings, and create the impression of unanimity, while self-appointed “mind-guards” prevent any inconvenient information from contaminating the group’s consensus.
There are ways to break this cycle. Bosses should leverage disruptive discussion, and encourage sharing information, however inconvenient for the consensus, argue Cass R Sunstein and Reid Hastie in Fortune magazine. They also recommend “red-teaming”, a kind of devil’s advocacy used by lawyers to poke holes in their own client’s case.
Ideological alignment and a lack of social diversity may also be antecedents to groupthink, according to Janis. Indeed, a 2006 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that mixed-raced juries may make fewer errors when checking facts and produce fairer verdicts than exclusively white juries.


The problem is not only that groupthinkers make poor business decisions; they do so with haste. Janis claims that the group may be inclined to ignore “the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions”, promoting “excessive optimism” and “extreme risks”. These senses of moral superiority and invincibility have been cited by A Hermann and A Rammal as two symptoms of Swissair’s management, prior to its collapse in 2001.
Moreover, these feelings allow the group to demonise any antagonistic colleagues, reducing them to negative and debasing stereotypes in order to buoy the group’s self-assurance.

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