Don’t let groupthink take you by surprise
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Don’t let groupthink take you by surprise

One week ago, I was sitting in my living room watching the election results come in. At nine or ten o’clock Eastern time, I, like most people, was surprised to see the returns favoring a Trump victory. Like most people, I figured Clinton had this in the bag.

I had been switching incessantly between CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the networks. I was working from the completely unfounded assumption that this would give me a more well-rounded view of what was going on out there — as if my mind could aggregate the perspectives of these different media organizations into a more complete and accurate read on the state of the union.

All those organizations seemed to take a more-is-better approach, too. Each channel had one or two well-known personalities anchoring a conversation among dozens of experts and insiders — as if accuracy and insight are cumulative.

I ended up settling on the ABC coverage anchored by George Stephanopoulos. This wasn’t a matter of preference. It was just the channel that was on when I put down the remote — after it dawned on me that it didn’t matter which broadcast I “consumed.”

When North Carolina landed in Trump’s column, then Iowa, you could sense something like a pall spreading over the talking heads in that studio. The mood became perceptibly more funereal. If you’re on the political right, maybe your first impulse was to see this as evidence of the mainstream media’s liberal bias. If you’re on the left, maybe you saw your own shock and disbelief registered on the screen.

Personally, I don’t think it was either.

I think it was the collective realization, in a room full of people paid for their expertise, that nobody had any idea what they were talking about.

The whole country, including most Republicans, had fallen victim to groupthink. And it unraveled live, on all the channels.

A common academic definition of groupthink is “a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

In our culture, is there any stronger signal of “in-group membership” than having an audience of tens of millions of people, whether it’s on television, on stage, or on Twitter? And if you’ve got a membership, is there any greater fear than screwing it up for yourself? Your expertise may have gotten you in-group membership in the first place, but before long that in-group membership becomes the thing that proves your expertise. (Let’s not forget how much heat golden-child pollster and statistician Nate Silver took for not having Clinton up enough in his model at FiveThirtyEight.)

So please, in-group members implicitly ask each other, don’t rock the boat. Even if you think the state polls have been telling a different story than the national ones. Despite the fact that Trump destroyed a field of 16 establishment players in the Republican primaries. Even if the favorability ratings for both candidates are at unprecedented lows.

If you’re part of the in-group, there is no benefit to raising your hand and suggesting the unthinkable — that maybe, possibly, everybody is completely and fundamentally wrong. (If you’re out of the in-group, however, you have everything to gain and little to lose.)

The problem is, what’s safe for individuals is bad for the group. If people feel safe taking contrarian or unpopular positions, then the benefit to the group and to the mission it serves is transformational.

Groupthink doesn’t just threaten media outlets and political parties. It’s a threat to any organization where, intentionally or not, members place a greater value on belonging than on performance. That’s why, as a manager, it’s so critical to create a work environment that’s conducive to multiple points of view.

So what can you do about it?

Is groupthink a problem for your team or organization? According to Irving L. Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University who developed the theory of groupthink, one of the clearest signs of groupthink is in-group pressure toward uniformity. This can take many forms, but some of the most common are:

  • Self-censorship. Do some members of your team clam up when there appears to be a majority opinion?
  • Silence as consent. Do you, or your team, assume that a lack of vocal opposition means everybody’s in alignment?
  • Criticism as disloyalty. Do you, or some of your team members, view opposition or criticism as acts of disloyalty or negativity?

To prevent groupthink from taking hold in your organization, Janis offers a few guidelines for managers:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator.” This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. They should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. They should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
  4. The organization should set up several independent groups working on the same problem. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  5. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

So encourage your team to prove you wrong. Make space for the quiet dissenters. Otherwise, you could end up like these guys: “2-Hour Meeting Spent Thinking Up Hashtag Absolutely Nobody On Planet Earth Will Ever Use”

Worse, you could end up like almost everybody in the media on election night.

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