Before you start to read this article, you are probably asking yourself why would anybody write about a concept that is over 50 years old. After all; is that not a management concept that is part of the dark ages of leadership? My response to that is – do you want to make a wager on that? A detrimental group dynamic process that we as leaders once thought we had under control is back again with vengeance. Several Industrial Psychologists aren’t really sure as to the reason why however, in the post pandemic era, it appears to be more prevalent as organizations begin to adopt a hybrid model of employee integration.
Decision-making is an integral part of any team – based activity. Group decision-making involves a sequence of activities that includes gathering, interpreting and exchanging information; while creating and identifying alternative courses of action, choosing among alternatives by integrating the differing perspectives and opinions of team members; and implementing a choice and monitoring its consequences. Sometimes teams can follow a flawed process, by not exchanging enough information and exploring inadequate alternatives, and make erroneous conclusions. Groupthink is one such pitfall of decision-making.
The aim of this article is to explore the role leadership plays in enhancing as well as mitigating Groupthink in team decision-making processes. Since most important and consequential decisions affecting organizations are made in groups, it is important to be conversant of the conditions and symptoms of this bias, and at the same time know how to mitigate negative results.
Groupthink is a concept introduced to organizations by Irving Janis in 1972 utilized to describe extreme consensus seeking tendencies in decision-making groups. According to Janis, groupthink is a mode of thinking whereby a group of team members premature striving for agreement overrides their ability to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.
It is detrimental to effective decision-making in that concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive team that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. In essence, Groupthink is a major barrier to attentive information appraisal and processing and inhibits inclusive rationalization.
The importance of this phenomenon and the justification of interest in this matter is that many important political, policy, operating procedures / protocols and business decisions are currently made in groups, under high-pressure and time constraints, that could result in disastrous consequences when Groupthink creeps in.
Examples of groupthink can be found in historic events such as the Bombing of Pearl Harbour, the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster and the Enron-Arthur Anderson Scandal. Closer to home in Canada such events as the bankruptcy of the Steel Company of Canada, the insolvency of Algoma Steel, Le Chateau, Aldo Shoes, Moore’s Clothiers and Carlton Cards – just to name a few. In each of these examples, leadership style played a key role in enhancing Groupthink conditions. Ironically, the role of leadership is also pivotal in ensuring that teams escape the potential pitfall of Groupthink by adopting certain practices that mitigate Groupthink.
Antecedent Conditions for Groupthink
The presence of the following antecedent conditions can lead to groupthink:
- High degree of cohesiveness within the group,
- Insulation of the group from outside sources of information,
- Lack of methodical procedures for information search and appraisal,
- Directive and controlling leadership,
- Homogeneity in members’ backgrounds,
- A high stress situation with little hope of finding a better solution than the one advocated by the leader,
- The absence of disagreement such as conflict, differing opinions and the ability to listen in order to understand instead of opposing,
- Fear of being ostracized from the group should you voice a differing view.
Symptoms of Groupthink
Groupthink can be diagnosed or observed when most or all of the following symptoms are present:
- Illusion of invulnerability,
- Belief in inherent morality of the group,
- Collective rationalization,
- Stereotypes of outliers,
- Direct pressure on dissenters,
- Illusion of unanimity,
- Self-appointed mind guards.
Leadership and Groupthink
The Leader’s Role
A leader is one who has the ability to influence members of a team to work effectively towards their goals. Among the antecedents of Groupthink, it is the leader’s role that has received the most attention. Dr James Esser, Lamar University discovered that leader behaviour strongly influences the number of alternative solutions proposed and discussed by groups and the actual final decisions made by them. Cognitive, focused and open leaders are more receptive to new information and are thus more flexible about their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts. While some psychologists like Michael Stroh and Kayla Schofield state that Groupthink emphasizes that members get influenced by the leader’s suggestions because they identify with the leader’s values and goals, others like Craig Kain and Brittany Dagenias suggests it’s more of a compliance issue.
Leaders do not treat all the members of the team equally and maintain distinct relationships with different members. This can lead to ingroups and outgroups being formed within a team, impacting group cohesiveness. There has been has linkage to high cohesiveness and Groupthink symptoms, there is also evidence that indicates cohesiveness has a positive effect in the information gathering stage of decision-making being more watchful in their information gathering which may or may not affect later stages of decision-making. A double-edged sword, group cohesiveness can be affected by leader-member relationships and leaders should be mindful of this fact.
Leaders who are high in power motivation foster an atmosphere that is detrimental to group decision-making. Leaders with low power motivation shared more information with their group and also considered more options before narrowing down on a decision. Leaders can use legitimate, referent and expert power to dole out rewards and punishments and in that affect the decision-making process.
The Impact of Specific Leadership Styles on Groupthink
Closed leaders do not encourage member participation, they state their opinions at the outset and do not encourage divergent opinions from all group members. Since these leaders establish their personal views early in the decision-making process, they reduce the discussion of more alternatives, which can also lead to the fallacies that all team members are on board.
Closed leaders who promote a particular alternative and ignore others, give rise to Groupthink symptoms and more observable defects in the group decision-making process. This could rise from confirmation bias and a priority for ego and reputation protection versus finding the optimal solution. When such leaders express a preferred solution early in the discussion, groups are far more likely to adopt that solution as the final group choice.
An Open leader is more inclined to be an effective leader; one who has an open outlook and can wear different hats, such as those of an adviser, coach, mentor and facilitator to meet the requirements of the situation. Open leaders have a tendency to establish a climate that is conducive to expression of both feelings and ideas while being the antithesis of a closed leader. Open leadership styles negate concurrence seeking tendencies by encouraging diversity of viewpoints and by promoting a group norm of open inquiry into alternative courses of action.
Learning from History: Closed vs. Open Leadership Styles
Bay of Pigs vs. Cuban Missile Crisis: This is an example of when the same group succumbed to Groupthink in one account (Bay of Pigs) and not in the other (Cuban Missile Crisis). While in the Bay of Pigs’ decision-making phase President Kennedy’s closed leadership style had an effect in that he stated his initial position forcefully, in the other case he turned his stance to that of a more open leader, emphasizing the need to canvas alternative solutions. President Kennedy even kept away from some of the meetings in order to reduce bias due to his presence.
What Can Leaders Do to Mitigate Groupthink?
A leader has to maintain a healthy atmosphere of divergent thinking that steers the team away from premature convergence. In addition to creating an environment of trust and openness, in which team members are encouraged to speak up and critique ideas and opinions without fear of being reprimanded, a leader could make use of the following best practices in order to mitigate Groupthink.
Use of Devil’s Advocate Role: Groups using the Devil’s Advocacy approach significantly outperformed those that didn’t. The Devil’s Advocate role is that of a person who takes a position for the sake of fostering argument and conflict and is one of the oldest tools that can be used to mitigate the Groupthink bias.
Encourage Authentic / Legitimate Dissent: Conflict in teams is not always a bad thing, especially task and process conflict. It’s important the leader recognize that in any legitimate conflict s/he has a certain degree of flexibility and that flexibility is based on two concepts; one is assertiveness and the other is cooperativeness. By encouraging authentic dissent in teams, leaders can actuate a search for more information on all sides of the issue, leading to the detection of issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The downside of this is that dissenters may be disliked and treated unfairly by team members so, team leaders must establish procedures to protect these alternative viewpoints and protect dissenters from backlash and being relegated to outgroup status.
Use of Applied Innovation : In the early stages of problem solving, it is imperative to explore the solution space, without narrowing down too quickly. To delve deeper leaders can introduce the Basadur “Simplex” approach that enhances mental flexibility and encourages the team to take a more divergent path. The concept of divergence and convergence within the eight step “Simplex” method underscores the cognitive orientations, each with its own focus, strengths, weaknesses and blind spots.
Use of Experts: When an expert is present, groups with directive leaders make better decisions than groups with non-directive leaders. Better training of leaders in the use of experts could be vital to the decision-making process. The presence of an expert can reduce the insulation of the group from the outside world.
Monitor Team Size: Team size is positively correlated with Groupthink. Although there is no magic number that may work, by keeping a team lean the leader will encourage its members to speak versus conforming to popular views.
Encourage Diversity: Diversity in groups often facilitates group performance and also reduces group cohesiveness, which in turn increases diverse perspectives. Research indicates that when there are many sources of diversity within a team, it becomes difficult for team members to form homogeneous subgroups. While diverse groups are good at generating more ideas, overall task performance is higher in homogeneous groups.
Refrain From Stating Opinion: The leader must refrain from stating his / her own personal opinions on the outcome and encourage the team members to openly air theirs. This engenders an atmosphere of open inquiry and impartiality.
Structure Discussion & Alleviate Time Pressure: By sharing guidelines on methodical decision-making processes and reducing time pressure, leaders can mitigate Groupthink antecedent conditions of lack of methodical principals and stress.
Implement Team Structure: Teams lacking structure may never reach their full potential. A clear structural frame is a better predictor of team success than the raw talent, skills and intelligence of team members. Too often leaders quickly organize a team to address an external problem or capitalize on a new market opportunity without designating a team leader or clarifying the roles of the team members (Position Descriptions with key performance indicators are a must). Consequently, the team can struggle while strong personalities jockey for control of the group. In the absence of structure, team members make assumptions about their role and responsibilities, don’t stay in their functional lane and get in each other’s way or duplicate efforts.Structure within a team increases accountability and improves the odds of a productive outcome.
Elimination of Poor Communication: Improving communication is key to addressing teamwork problems and solutions. Teams must meet regularly either in person or remotely to check in. Although it may seem counterintuitive, the agenda should not focus entirely on the tasks at hand because members of a team should feel a sense of connectedness and belong. Open leaders suggest that teams can benefit from setting aside ten minutes at the start of a meeting for personal sharing such as family activities, upcoming vacations and sporting events. Conversing about topics other than work can help team members get to know one another and bond. Leaders must ensure that minutes of meetings are not “doctored or cooked” in order to benefit hidden agendas and keep important information from other team members.
Elimination of Toxic Team Members: One of the required qualifications in many Position Descriptions is the ability to work harmoniously on a team while achieving key performance indicators. Certain personality types such as bullies are not good team players because of their ego needs and a desire to be in control. More than sixty million workers experience workplace bullying and when bullies serve on teams, they sabotage and harass team members, dominate team meetings, silence introverted coworkers and point blame.Leaders must quickly intervene and rectify problems of teamwork. Left unchecked, toxic team members can create a hostile environment that tanks morale, undermines team efforts and impedes productivity.
Letterman or Leno: A Groupthink Analysis of Successive Decisions Made by NBC
By analyzing two consecutive decisions made by the same group of executives at National Broadcasting Company (NBC) explored the role leadership played in enhancing Groupthink in the first case and mitigating it in the second. When Johnny Carson, the 30-year host of The Tonight Show (NBC’s flagship late-night television show), retired, the NBC executive group was faced with two decisions. Who would take over from Carson: Jay Leno or David Letterman? The second decision involved determining what to do with the late night star that didn’t take over the show.
In the first decision, all the antecedents Groupthink model were present. The decision-making group, led by Bob Wright (President of NBC), was cohesive, insulated from outside opinion, homogeneous and under stress to make the right decision. Wright’s view was that Leno would be a better host and he actively voiced his opinion at the outset, “…NBC had established over 30 years an audience that expected certain things, and Jay Leno looked like the perfect successor to that, while David Letterman remained the ideal performer for the 12:30 show.” No one in the group challenged the leader’s view and NBC chose Leno over Letterman. This decision proved disastrous for NBC as Letterman accepted a contract with CBS for his Late Show and competed head to head with Leno’s show and won the competition in both ratings and advertising dollars.
The second decision was regarding what to do with Letterman since they chose Leno for the Tonight Show. In this case all the antecedents of Groupthink were present except two: leader preference for a certain outcome and group insulation. Bob Wright maintained a neutral position and encouraged all the members to speak up and the presence of experts checked the insulation problem. This led to a thorough evaluation of a wide range of criteria and careful weighing of associated costs and risks.
Analysis of the second decision yields information that proved that Groupthink decision-making defects did not occur, despite the presence of some antecedents.
This study proves that leader behavior and the presence of experts are important factors in moderating and mitigating other existing antecedents and symptoms of Groupthink in team decision-making.
Buy or Not To Buy: A Groupthink Analysis of the E. D. Smith / GEM Fiasco
Groupthink is clearly illustrated in the E.D. Smith, Canada acquisition of GEM, Mississippi. Senior management officials at E.D. Smith were told by reliable food industry sources that they had to expand to the United States in order to stay abreast with customers as they expanded their market and became more global in their strategic challenges. Llewellyn Smith, then President and Chairman of the Board for E.D. Smith said that it was imperative that the Canadian business unit acquire a “going concern” food manufacturing organization and he left the task to one man to make all decisions as it related to expansion. Not well prepared for the task (through no fault of his own) and influenced by Mr. Smith’s statement and focus, the leader forced senior management to commit E. D. Smith to purchase of GEM Industries in Byhalia, Mississippi from a Toronto business man.
Few, if any business unit team members were engaged in strategy discussions fell into line thinking that this was the right thing to do; they can’t be wrong. Strategic acquisition analysis was none existent and a thorough understanding of the economics of products, technology, market for labour resources and geographic cultural was not evaluated. As a result, after losing approximately ten million dollars and various corporate resources in a two year period, E.D. Smith sold all of its interest in the company and went back to Canada.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating Groupthink, keeping in mind that there are no fixed attributes of a group or personalities that may be causing the phenomenon, leadership can avoid the snares of Groupthink by; being mindful of the antecedents and symptoms, taking necessary precautions to bypass them and recognizing the role leadership plays in both enhancing and alleviating them.
Harmony is seductive and getting along with others feels good so, everyone wants to appear to be a team player. As a result, each individual works hard to make their own opinion conform to what they believe is the consensus of the group. The satisfaction of belonging to a cohesive group lead people to suppress their inner doubts and their inner thoughts. Loud voices overpower quieter voices, descent is squashed and the outcome is flawed sometimes with disastrous results.
Groupthink is a creeping cultural scientific form of communism which frees people from moral decision making because, the belief is that the system can manage things better than the individual. It is a bias the afflicts groups and places an invisible pressure to conform. That rise of spontaneously in the moment affects people’s judgment without even knowing their judgment is being affected. That unconscious bias is what makes Groupthink so dangerous.
About The Authors.
Nicholas Pollice is President of The Pollice Management Consulting Group located in Niagara, Ontario, Canada. An international facilitator, presenter and consultant, he is known as an operations management leader and coach. Nicholas conducts programs in leadership, supervision, communication, negotiation, conflict resolution and strategic planning. He has been a international consultant since 1989 and is the author of several professional publications. His presentations have been consistently ranked in the top 10% throughout North America. See Nicholas’ bio, his other publications and services on the PMCG. Website at www.pollicemanagement.com
Arpita Das Behl is the Talent Management Specialist, Global Talent & Organizational Effectiveness, Mondelez, International, San Francisco, California.