How to Avoid Groupthink: 13 Tips for the Workplace

Here’s how to avoid groupthink minefields and leverage their benefits.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Jun. 01, 2022
How to Avoid Groupthink: 13 Tips for the Workplace

Kiron Bondale knows firsthand about like-minded thinking and what it takes to extract yourself from the jaws of groupthink.

Several years ago, Bondale was part of a team trying to integrate third-party solutions to automate the process of data sharing between two systems.

“On the surface, it looked like a really valuable project. It would automate a manual process and improve the quality of the data,” said Bondale, who at the time was working as a project manager at a company.

But six months into the project, reality hit. Although it could technically automate the process, it faced severe limitations on the amount of data that could be automatically shared between the two systems. The question arose — fish or cut bait.

“As soon as a couple of people said they wanted to keep it going, the majority of stakeholders said they wanted to continue it, even though it was clear the actual realization of any kind of profit or revenue was going to be marginal and would not justify continuing,” said Bondale, who now is a semi-retired senior consultant for World Class Productivity and a member of the Project Management Institute.

What’s Groupthink?

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of people voice public support for an idea, direction, or policy because they fear appearing disloyal to the group despite their reservations or concerns. As a result, this gives the false appearance of more support for an idea, direction or policy than truly exists, potentially leading to damaging or catastrophic outcomes. 

Bondale, however, had a different view. He asked the group to step back and reconsider its options and managed to steer some of the stakeholders to share his view after having individual discussions with them. Ultimately, the group decided to nix the project, breaking away from groupthink.

“I’ve seen a couple of situations like that before where a couple of people create groupthink because people want to maintain harmony in the group and not rock the boat with robust discussion,” Bondale said.

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What Is Groupthink?

Groupthink is when people form an allegiance to the group rather than figuring out what is actually the best path forward.

“They start to believe that group cohesion is more important than open discovery,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership programs and a professor at the Yale School of Management at Yale University, told Built In. “You see this all the time with committees, task forces, and sometimes executive search committees where they won’t want any dissent. They make it seem like dissent is the same thing as disloyalty.”

 

Groupthink Phenomenons

Groupthink can emerge when people believe they are firmly in the right — but also when they have doubts but express public support for that proposed idea or solution. 

That faux public support contributes to an artificial appearance of wide support for the idea or solution when very little or none may have existed, experts said, pointing to the Abilene Paradox featured in this video. 

Pluralistic ignorance is a phenomenon, similar to the Abilene Paradox, where you see a group expressing a view that is different from your own and then assume they see something you don’t. As a result, you stay silent.

“You get this weird reinforcing process whereby lots of people can privately disagree with something but publicly express support for it. That public support creates the illusion that everyone actually believes something that no one believes in. This process is very susceptible to manipulation,” said Damon Centola, professor of communication, sociology and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Decision-making bias is another phenomenon of groupthink and is driven by like-minded people vocalizing their point of view, Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at the University of San Diego told Built In.  

Confirmation bias is one of the many forms of decision-making bias, she said. 

“The group kind of gloms onto what they want to be true, which in most cases is the status quo,” said Mueller, pointing to her research. “They say it’s been used before and it worked, so we can’t be blamed if something goes wrong. It also makes decision-making quick and easy, so people think they don’t have to meet again because a decision was reached.”

Groups tasked with making a change are often disappointed to learn how complex the issue can be as they dig deeper into considering all aspects of a problem, especially when there are cross-functional teams involved and a need for group buy-in, said Mueller.

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Common Mischaracterizations of Groupthink

Wisdom of the group is often mistakenly associated with groupthink, Centola said. The reasoning goes if people reach a consensus, then there is some kind of groupthink at work to reach an agreement. But that’s not always the case.

“Sometimes there can be a natural consensus formation among a diversity of voices that is actually a learning process where a new idea emerges from diverse perspectives and everyone winds up gravitating toward it,” he said.

Allowing ideas to emerge and converge without individuals feeling the need to suppress them, collectively results in a much better solution than if a single person was tackling it by themselves and didn’t share it with the group, Centola added, pointing to his research.

Group belief also needs to be differentiated from groupthink, said Marcus Oliver, vice president of innovation strategy and design for creative design consultancy Frog Design.

“There’s something wonderful when there’s an aha moment in the room and everyone’s like, ‘That’s it,’” Oliver told Built In. “Group belief is a positive outcome we all strive for, whereas groupthink is the negative side of those moments when you have a collection of people who come to an agreement that is the average of everybody else’s thoughts.”

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How Do You Overcome Groupthink?

Tech executives and academic researchers offer critical steps and principles to nix groupthink, which ranges from fighting the status quo to empowering those attending your meetings.

 

3 Tips for Combating Groupthink

Challenge the status quo: Start the group discussion with all the reasons why the status quo solution won’t work for the particular issue, Mueller said. Challenging this established norm pushes the group to dig deeper into alternative solutions, she added.

“One of the first things a group may say is, ‘What is our competitor doing right and let’s do that.’ That’s the status quo bias,” said Mueller. “Instead, they could say, ‘Our competitors are doing this, why won’t that work here?’”

Use a placeholder solution: Developing a concrete final solution can seem arduous, with the pressure leading to groupthink just to say your group reached a decision. Instead, consider a placeholder solution or liminal ideas that will alleviate some of this pressure and free up the group’s ability to think abstractly and experiment with other ideas, Mueller said.

“The best example I can think of is child’s play. They may have a toy truck, but know it’s not really a truck. They’ll make the truck fly, even though they know trucks can’t fly. They suspend the rules,” Mueller said. “This should be the spirit of where teams go when they have liminal ideas.”

Liminal ideas help a group find ways to reach a broad agreement so they can continue to move forward toward a final agreement

Celebrate broad agreements: Acknowledging broad agreements drive momentum toward a final agreement without falling back on groupthink to get there. Plus, it improves the group’s morale, Mueller said.

 

Weed Out Groupthink With Workplace Boundaries

Environment and culture: Create a work environment culture that encourages questions and psychological safety in expressing ideas and opinions. This is one of four areas where Bhavini Soneji, vice president of product engineering at autonomous carmaker Cruise, sets boundaries to keep groupthink from happening in the first place.

“What this means is you have to start getting comfortable with long pauses because it takes a while for people to start building up the courage and momentum to speak,” Soneji said.

Empowerment: Empower people from the bottom up. “When people understand how their role ladders up to results, their sense of ownership and engagement skyrockets,” Soneji said. This, in turn, may lead to more robust group discussions.

Efficiency and speed: A group striving for perfection can get bogged down in analysis paralysis, so it’s better to become comfortable with taking risks, potentially encountering mistakes and then learning from them. 

Experimentation: Try new ways to use the customer’s data and input to avoid biases in solving their problems, said Soneji. 

There may be moments when you think this is what a customer wants, but in actuality, it’s something different, she noted. It’s better to focus on the problem and not the solution.

“If you tell an engineer you want a wheel, they’ll build you one. But if you tell them you want to steer a boat, they might surprise you with what they come up with,” Soneji said. 

Kurt Walecki, senior vice president of design and emerging markets at Intuit, follows a similar approach with Intuit’s Customer Driven Innovation (CDI) approach.

“If you tell an engineer you want a wheel, they’ll build you one. But if you tell them you want to steer a boat, they might surprise you with what they come up with,” Soneji said.

When he arrived at Intuit nine years ago as lead designer for TurboTax, he wanted to build an amazing brand. He and his team believed everyone felt that taxes mattered and loomed large in their lives.

But after doing a market research experiment where 500 survey takers boarded buses to query a variety of people across the country from different socio-economic backgrounds — the researchers came to the exact opposite conclusion, Walecki said. 

Taxes didn’t matter as much as they thought.

He learned people wanted to hand their taxes off to someone else and they didn’t want to worry about them. That blew up the premises that the group had held.

“From that six-week trip, we came to understand that taxes don’t matter but life does,” Walecki said. “Intuit is a financial platform and so we can actually help people live their lives and provide them with the confidence they need to do their taxes without worry.”

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Get Rid of Groupthink for Good

A number of other strategies can be taken to eliminate groupthink, said executives and academic professors. Here is a sample of them.

Encourage Different Points of View 

“When people speak up with different ideas and they’re not considered, they’ll begin to think why should I speak up at all? If I don’t speak up, we’ll also get out of the meeting faster,” Mueller said. 

Leaders and managers, who face pressure for correct decisions and accountability, may be hesitant to try something new and prefer to take a more conservative approach, she added.

“If someone speaks up with an idea, as crazy as the leader thinks it is, they should say one thing positive about the idea.”

“A lot of leaders feel that if they say one positive thing, it’ll open the floodgates and they’re going to have to implement the idea. We found through my work that leaders tend to be more negative than positive,” Mueller said. “If someone speaks up with an idea, as crazy as the leader thinks it is, they should say one thing positive about the idea.”

 

Initiate a Balance

When a group comes together to take action on a problem or develop ideas, consider issuing them a one-page document stating the problem and any previous decision-making efforts that went into developing potential or current options, said Soneji.

“That’s how we basically make sure we don’t shut voices down because maybe we did not know about that pocket of data and at the same time we don’t want to boil the ocean and slow things down and constantly revisit things,” she said.

 

Read Body Language

Leaders and group facilitators should gently prompt people or pull them to the side during a meeting break if you notice their body language or expressions seem to show they are uncomfortable with the direction the group is headed, Bondale suggested.

And on Zoom meetings, leaders and facilitators should be observant if someone unmutes their microphone versus raising their hand and inquire if they would like to comment, Oliver said.

 

Avoid Larger Groups

Societal pressure to conform may increase as the group size grows larger, Bondale said. “A couple of people is a small team, but I think the tipping point is somewhere around five to six people or more when you start to see groupthink. The larger the group, the greater opportunity for groupthink because it takes more courage to speak up,” he added.

 

Create Breakout Groups

Arrange breakout sessions if you have a large group to encourage others to share their ideas if you notice some attendees are not comfortable in large groups, said Bondale.

Take advantage of breaks or pauses in longer meetings to get a sense of what they feel — especially thoughts of those who have not been participating in the group’s discussions or appear uncomfortable with decisions the group is making, he added.

 

Increase Diversity

Combat groupthink with a diversity of thinking by bringing in participants from other cultures, genders, ages, economic income levels and other life experiences, Bondale said.

 

Find the Creativity Kickstarters

Brainstorming tends to scratch the surface where people bring forward superficial ideas that are easily top of mind, Bondale said. He suggested having some of the meeting participants generate the first set of ideas and then pass them onto other participants who will build on them. “That’s one way of digging a little deeper into a topic,” Bondale added.

 

Assign a Devil’s Advocate

Formally request one of the meeting attendees to play the role of devil’s advocate to counter the group’s momentum of moving in one direction by asking such questions of what part of this idea could fail and why? 

Another technique is the Six Thinking Hats by psychologist Edward de Bono. Each hat represents a different perspective that someone in the meeting could adopt when evaluating the topic at hand, Bondale said.

But Oliver noted when empowering people to play certain roles in a discussion, it is equally important to think about who will play a certain role rather than doling them out willy nilly.

 

Tweak Centralized Decision-Making Networks

Centola of University of Pennsylvania recalls an anecdote about former President Obama’s cabinet meetings. He would make it a point to call on lower-level staffers sitting in the outskirts of the room because he knew they were the ones who were providing the information and data to those who were seated at the table, Centola said.

It’s important for leaders at the highest level of the decision-making process to gather information and data from people directly involved, Centola said.

“It was a way to bring their knowledge of a complex situation and the subtle details of particular data to help draw a policy conclusion,” Centola said. “He did this as a way to make the conversation less centralized but secondly appreciated nuances and how these facts might favor one policy solution but under slightly different conditions favor a different policy solution. These kinds of nuances are lost in high-level briefs.”

 

Create an Optimized Organizational Network

Every manager has to make decisions about who to connect with whom, how often they have to meet, what information they need to share, and what kind of organizational network will optimize their team performance, Centola said.

“When you’ve got lots of people talking all at once and they’re sharing all their data, you can pretty easily go from a bad solution to a good solution,” said Centola.

When everyone begins to converge on a good solution, you aren’t going to hear from those who disagree or think there are other priorities to consider, he added.

“Breakthroughs and game-changing ideas aren’t really within the wheelhouse of a good idea. They’re outside of it because if given an opportunity to explore an idea they’re not being overwhelmed to conform to a good idea,” Centola explained.

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How to Recognize Groupthink Is Happening

Groupthink is a common occurrence but others may feel they’ve never experienced it or seen it in action. That’s because it may depend on where you sit on a given decision.

“The only people who will detect groupthink are the ones who are not comfortable with the way the discussion is going.”

“Are you the person who is truly on board with the idea? If so, then to you it’s not groupthink. You obviously think the right decision is being made,” Bondale said. “The only people who will detect groupthink are the ones who are not comfortable with the way the discussion is going. Their spidey senses are tingling and they feel like they have a pit in their stomach. They want to say something but they’re holding back.”

 

Finding the Nuggets of Good in Groupthink

Groupthink may be an acceptable avenue to choose in certain situations, experts said.

If the stakes are relatively low, then it could be one way of maintaining the harmony within the team and is better than fighting it out over an extended period of time, Bondale said.

“I think it’s important to draw some boundaries around the decision that has to be made, making it clear what level of importance it is, what the urgency of the decision is, and then let that drive how much or how little you’re going to invest in coming up with the best possible decision,” he added.

Groupthink can also provide teachable moments where the process of reaching a decision, not the outcome, is more important, Oliver said.

In narrow situations, Walecki also believes groupthink makes sense if you have the right combination of people involved in making a decision.

“If an engineering team says they want to build a platform in a way that they’re going to get massive scale and flexibility to go global, do you need proof to understand that or external examples or benchmarks?” Walecki said. “If that’s groupthinking, I don’t need to see a test to get behind that.”

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Groupthink Will Probably Always Be a Challenge

While some managers and leaders are learning how to spot the signs of groupthink so they can detect it sooner, it’s unlikely groupthink will ever be eliminated from people’s behavior, Bondale said. 

“I think the only way we could ever eliminate it is if we start having some sort of an AI that could listen in on group conversations and be able to raise the red flag if it’s happening,” he said.

Oliver also believes human nature will play a role in groupthink’s persistence.

“We want people to like us and we want to show we can compromise. We’re inherently good and it’s human nature at its heart,” Oliver said. “So, we have to watchout for groupthink at all times. It’s hard to imagine it would totally disappear.”

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