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Groupthink: A Common Contributor to Team Failure

written by: N. Plowman • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 8/2/2014

Many people associate groupthink with high-profile cases like the Jonestown Massacre; however, groupthink is also very common in decision-making teams. This article identifies what groupthink is and how it occurs. It also discusses how groupthink leads to team failure and ways to avoid groupthink.

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    What Is Groupthink?

    groupthink Groupthink is a tendency for decision-making groups to suppress opposing viewpoints in order to preserve group harmony.

    Although groupthink involves restricting opinions, it is not actively and intentionally pursued. Instead, groupthink is a psychological tendency to unintentionally reduce opposition in hopes of reducing tension, increasing cohesion, and quickly reaching a decision.

    Groupthink can also be viewed as a form of peer pressure exerted by majority leaders on those team members that are less willing to conform.

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    Reasons Groupthink Occurs

    There are many reasons that groupthink is prevalent among decision-making teams.

    1. Individual team members experience the need for approval from other team members, which is supported by the common human desire of acceptance.
    2. By suppressing contradicting views, a team member is able to reduce conflict, which leads to an enhanced perception of self worth.
    3. The main purpose of teams is to achieve a common goal, and anything that interferes with successfully achieving the goal is avoided at all costs.
    4. A group of individuals often want to minimize conflict between team members in order to maintain a pleasant environment, and the most common instigator of conflict is disagreement.
    5. Teams often have a limited number of resources and time to achieve a goal, which makes teams look for any way to reach a consensus while preserving resources and time.
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    Ways Groupthink Leads to Team Failure

    When considering what groupthink is and why it occurs, it is easy to identify how groupthink can lead to team failure. The two most obvious ways include conformity and submission.

    When a team member conforms to the majority, he or she is sacrificing his or her own involvement in the team’s decision-making process. This leads to team failure in two significant ways. First, the team becomes very one-sided and close-minded, which limits the ability to forecast potential problems and thoroughly evaluate necessary solutions. Second, conformity reduces the individuality and diversity necessary for effective teamwork.

    Discussion When a team member suppresses his or her own opinions to preserve group harmony, the team member is being peer pressured into submission. Submission negatively influences team success by creating an atmosphere of dominance rather than mutual accountability and teamwork, which is necessary for teams to be successful and thrive. Second, submission leads to individual feelings of worthlessness and apathy toward team goals, which can be detrimental to team spirit, cooperative engagements, and overall workplace and employee satisfaction.

    In addition to the obvious influences that groupthink has on team success, groupthink also limits a team’s ability to grow and develop into a high-functioning team. When a group is unable to healthily consider minority viewpoints, the team eventually becomes dysfunctional and cannot effectively complete the decision-making process, which includes weighing alternative solutions in hopes of choosing the best option. This suppression of opposing viewpoints eventually leads to irrational and unsound decisions, which tend to be more extreme, radical, and dangerous to the functionality, well-being, and longevity of the team.

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    How to Minimize the Occurrence of Groupthink

    Since groupthink is not an active an intentional process, it is critical for managers and project leaders to identify proactive ways to decrease the likelihood that a team, regardless of size, will succumb to the tendency for groupthink. The following ideas are not guaranteed to eliminate groupthink; however, these recommendations surely decrease the likelihood that groupthink will occur, and can decrease the severity of groupthink, when it does occur.

    • Appoint multiple, and diverse, team leaders to ensure the acceptance of a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions during any discussions.
    • Team leaders should not state any expectations or preferences before a discussion begins to reduce the effect of priming on the decision-making process.
    • Team leaders should reiterate the importance of each member contributing to the discussion in a substantive manner and critically evaluating all suggestions, regardless of initial feelings of reservation.
    • Encourage individuality to foster diversity appreciation and increase diversity awareness among team members.
    • Reward “out-of-the-box” thinking to encourage healthy competition among opinions.
    • Encourage equality and open communication policies.
    • Appoint a third-party (non-member), to oversee the discussion, purpose any alternative opinions or suggestions, and to identify any issues that might be unintentionally suppressed or avoided by team members.
    • Appoint multiple team members to play the role of Devil’s Advocate once a decision has been reached to ensure it is logical and reasonable.
    • Identify activities that can increase cohesion and encourage trust among team members.
    • Set realistic timelines and goals to avoid teams feeling the pressure of limited time and resources.