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Groupthink: Smiling and Nodding your Way to Defeat

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Consensus decision-making sits just on the edge of groupthink, and it's the best way to keep the best brain power ... away from the team.

As of April 2022, the net worth of Larry page is $124.5 billion. He is the seventh richest person in the world, according to Forbes. And if you think his wealth has nothing to do with you, think again. He is the co-founder of Google and the inventor of PageRank, Google’s search ranking algorithm. Most of us use his “brain children” every day.

When he stepped back in as CEO of Google in 2011, one of the first things he did was send out a company- wide email and that email contained an edict that would impact how every single meeting would be conducted:

  • Every meeting must have one clear decision maker. If there's no decision maker -- or no decision to be made -- the meeting shouldn't happen. 

  • No more than 10 people should attend. 

  • Every person should give input, otherwise they shouldn't be there. 

  • No decision should ever wait for a meeting. If a meeting absolutely has to happen before a decision should be made, then the meeting should be scheduled immediately.

Page’s goal: Eliminate the existing culture of concensus.

Wait… what’s wrong with consensus decision making?

For a while, consensus decision making was a thing, and lots of companies touted it as integral to their healthy democratic culture. It can’t be a bad thing that a group discusses and debates a particular course of action until every member agrees, or can at least live with one final. Can it?

After all, this approach aligns with the ideals that we embrace like democracy and inclusion. If done right and everyone participates, it can result in a well-informed decision with collective buy-in. All true. But, we’re learning from research on cognitive bias that consensus decision making sits just this side of groupthink. Groupthink decisions rarely have successful outcomes.

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, groupthink is “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”

First coined in 1972 by social psychologist, Irving L. Janis, groupthink refers to a psychological phenomenon that happens when people in a group commit to decisions they don’t necessarily agree with in order to avoid creating emotional tension or conflict with their colleagues. Janis identified eight different "symptoms" that indicate groupthink may be undermining team efforts:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –unrealistic optimism that encourages impetuous risk-taking

  2. Collective rationalization – ignore warning signs or do not reconsider assumptions.

  3. Belief in inherent morality – staunch belief in the “rightness” and ignoring any ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – views anyone opposing the group as not being team players or traitors.

  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

  6. Self-censorship – any deviations from the group consensus are not expressed.

  7. Illusion of unanimity – the view that every member of the group agrees.

  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – protect the consensus and hide contradictory information.

When people are so committed to reach consensus that they put harmony and cohesion above the critical evaluation and analysis of the outcome, they stifle their thoughts, refrain from asking the hard questions and avoid exposing potential pitfalls. This often leads to irrational or problematic decisions.

Group think can transform a harmonious team of bright, creative, independent thinkers into a group of “smilers and nodders” keeping their very best thinking to themselves… for the good of the team?

The best thing people can bring with them when an important decision is on the table is their best thinking: the critical, analytical scrutiny that turns ideas and potential solutions upside down and poke holes in them with the purpose of finding the flaws. How many times have you reflected back in the post-mortem about a poor decision your team made, and you wished someone – anyone– would have had the insight, courage, or the moxie to stand up and ask the kinds of questions that might have revealed the defects that no one seemed to notice?

But, hey... at least everyone got along, right?

Alfred P. Sloan, the longtime president, chairman, and CEO of General Motors from the 1920s to the 1950s was highly skeptical when his teams achieved consensus too quickly. In fact, without disagreement, Sloan felt that people lacked the understanding to make a decision.

“If we are all in agreement on the decision — then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding  of what the decision is all about.” – Alfred Sloan

Slipping into groupthink oftentimes happens without our awareness and goes undetected long after the meeting is over. But, once you know what it looks like and feels like, it will become so crystal clear, you'll wonder why you never saw it before.

Collective buy-in is essential for important group decisions, but not at the expense of independent thinking. Unfortunately, independent thinking is often the first team trait sacrificed in the quest for shared responsibility and accountability. In organizations where thought leadership, diverse thinking, and alternative perspectives are valued and protected, groupthink doesn’t stand a chance. The good news is that one person can disrupt the power of groupthink and open the door for others to share diverse perspectives.

Be that person.

Check out this clip for a look at groupthink in a 1962 episode of Candid Camera.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

5 Ways to Beat Bias in the Workplace

Why Your Hardest Workers are Killing Your Culture

Fears, Commas & the F-Word

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