How Teams Avoid Groupthink

How Teams Avoid Groupthink
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Why Your Leaders Should Learn How Teams Avoid Groupthink
In our decision making training, we define groupthink as the “practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.” Certainly you will want to learn how teams avoid groupthink and encourage both creativity and responsibility.

If you think your team is immune from groupthink because you’re just too darn smart to fall into that trap, think again. All of the following profoundly bad decisions were vetted and backed by some of the best brains in their respective fields:

  • The Attack on Pearl Harbor
    For weeks before the attack, hundreds of intercepted Japanese communications confirmed that an attack on Pearl Harbor was looming. Despite this, experienced military leaders didn’t believe that the Japanese would attack a superior military.
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
    Key space shuttle engineers again and again voiced concerns about the safety of the mission. Their warnings were ignored because of pressures to launch on schedule and a faulty belief by superiors that current testing efforts were enough.
  • Kodak and Digital Cameras
    Believe it or not, Kodak was the world leader in camera technology and developed the world’s first digital camera. Instead of creating and leading this new market, leaders felt unbeatable and decided against bringing the new technology to market. 

One of the biggest culprits? Groupthink.

Groupthink Can Be Well Disguised
Just knowing about the phenomenon of groupthink does not protect you from practicing it. The poor decisions were not made because people were going along just to get along or where an overbearing personality bullied others into accepting their ideas. These poor decisions were thoughtful, honest discussions among people who knew their stuff and weren’t afraid to speak up.

And yet groupthink happened anyway.

The Problem
Groupthink doesn’t happen because people are not smart enough to see what’s happening. Rather, it’s deeply rooted in the organizational culture, psychology of the interpersonal relationships, and organizational structure. The only sure way to avoid groupthink is to proactively engineer the team’s decision-making process to expect and plan for groupthink.  

The Solution
If you want to improve your decision making culture, here are five field-tested strategies to expect and plan for groupthink:

  1. Appoint a Devil’s Advocate
    One effective antidote to groupthink is to appoint a devil’s advocate whose job is to challenge the group’s consensus. Make the role explicit and formal so the job is recognized as purposefully confrontational. If not, there is apt to be too much pressure on the individual to “get with the program.”
  2. Set Up a Debate
    Another strategy is to divide the group into two teams — one to argue in favor of a proposed plan and the other to argue against it — a red team.  The red team arguing “against” will proactively dig harder to identify logical flaws and disconfirming evidence.

    You can also use dialectical inquiry where different groups are tasked with examining and interrogating competing ideas, perspectives, or arguments to encourage higher quality recommendations. The groups debate alternatives with the final recommendation often embodying different elements from both approaches.
  3. Create Multiple Teams
    A variation is to set up multiple independent teams charged with exploring solutions to the same problem. This way there is less risk that consensus seeking will shut down divergent thinking. Groupthink can still happen within each team of course, but when you finally bring everyone together, the effects tend to cancel out.
  4. Invite the Views of Outside Experts
    Outside experts aren’t as invested in the process or the outcome as the people who developed the solution. They only know the decision itself. That’s good because the quality of a decision has little to do with how much effort was put into it or how much people liked it.

    Another way to involve outside views is to ask team members to discuss an issue with other people before the meeting. There will be more insights to share and team members will be less likely to get steamrolled by what happens during the meeting. 
  5. Lay Low as the Leader
    In most companies, a leader’s views carry more weight than those of others in the group. As the leader, your most valuable role is to evaluate the decisions that the group proposes, not to develop them. Stay out of the decision making process as much as you can and keep your opinions to yourself.

The Research
Highlighted by our microlearning experts, a longitudinal study by D. M. Schweiger et al of 120 fast-advancing middle- and upper-level managers involved in strategic planning compared the effectiveness of dialectical inquiry, devil’s advocacy, and consensus approaches to strategic decision making. Groups that used dialectical inquiry and devil’s advocacy had overall quality ratings 34% and 33% higher than groups that used consensus-building techniques.

The research also found that while the more adversarial approaches generate better outcomes, they also create less buy-in because people’s status and social standing can feel threatened when their ideas are not selected. If you employ more adversarial approaches to get better results, make sure that you set the context correctly upfront and assign various “roles to play” so that people know there are not “winners and losers” and that you invest the time required to close with consensus and mend any fences to help create buy-in.

The Bottom Line
Don’t let groupthink infect the important decisions your team must make to thrive. Practice the strategic decision making process of how teams avoid groupthink. Are you employing the strategies above to help your team avoid groupthink?

To learn more about how to improve decision making, download The Top 5 Decision-Making Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs

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