Organizational Wellness

Recognizing and Avoiding Groupthink in the Workplace

Nov 8, 2023
Last Updated Nov 8, 2023

There are two outcomes most likely during a brainstorming session.

The first is what you want to happen: New and innovative ideas are developed to help the organization move forward.

The second, unfortunately, happens all too often. The participants get stuck in a cycle that hampers creative thinking and leads to errors in judgment. In many cases, these mistakes or bad decisions could have been avoided had it not been for groupthink.

The good news is that you can recognize groupthink is in process. This empowers you to overcome it, and teach your team leaders how to do the same. This can help improve team dynamicsleadership, and the overall wellbeing of your organization.

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What is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when group members prioritize harmony and conformity over critical evaluation and individual opinions. The desire to maintain a positive group dynamic can suppress dissenting opinions, resulting in a false sense of consensus. This often leads to poor decision-making, as the group tends to ignore alternative viewpoints and overlook potential risks.

Understanding Groupthink Bias

An important aspect of groupthink is the concept of bias. This refers to the cognitive biases that influence individuals within a group to conform to the majority opinion, even if it contradicts their own beliefs or values.

Groupthink bias can occur for various reasons, such as the fear of being ostracized, the need for social approval, or the belief that the group's collective intelligence is superior to one's own. As a result, it can hinder creativity, stifle innovation, and perpetuate flawed decision-making processes within a team or organization.

Signs of Groupthink to Watch Out For

If leaders and team members know what groupthink looks like, they can identify when it may be influencing their decision-making processes and take steps to counter it. 

  • Pressure to conform: Group members feel compelled to agree with the majority opinion, even if they have reservations or disagree internally.
  • Illusion of unanimity: Participants mistakenly believe that everyone agrees, as dissenting voices remain silent or are ignored.
  • Self-censorship: Individuals withhold dissenting opinions or concerns to avoid conflict or criticism, contributing to a false sense of unanimity.
  • Collective rationalization: Members of the group dismiss or downplay warnings and negative feedback, rationalizing their decisions to reinforce the group's beliefs.
  • Belief in inherent morality: The group believes its decisions are morally superior, which can lead to disregarding ethical concerns or consequences.
  • Illusion of invulnerability: Teams exhibit excessive optimism and takes unnecessary risks, believing they cannot fail.
  • Stereotyping outsiders: The group views those who oppose or question their decisions as inferior, incompetent, or malicious, leading to the dismissal of alternative viewpoints.
  • Mindguards: Some members take on the role of "gatekeepers," shielding the group from dissenting opinions or information that might challenge the group's consensus.

Examples of Groupthink in the Workplace

To get a better sense of what groupthink looks like in the real world, let's look at some examples of crises that could have been avoided.

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster

This tragic event resulted in the loss of seven crew members and the spacecraft's destruction shortly after its launch in January 1986. Many factors contributed to the accident, but groupthink played a significant role in the decision-making process leading up to the launch.

In the days and weeks before the launch, engineers had expressed concerns about the performance of the O-ring seals in cold temperatures. They feared that low temperatures could cause the O-rings to lose their elasticity and fail to seal the joints properly, potentially resulting in a catastrophic failure.

Despite these concerns, the decision to proceed with the launch was made under pressure from various sources, including maintaining a tight launch schedule and the desire to demonstrate the shuttle's reliability. The managers involved in the launch approval process fell victim to several symptoms of groupthink:

  • Illusion of invulnerability: NASA and Morton Thiokol managers were overly confident in the shuttle's safety record and dismissed the potential risks of launching in cold temperatures.
  • Collective rationalization: They rationalized their decision to proceed with the launch by downplaying the concerns raised by the engineers and focusing on previous successful launches under similar conditions.
  • Pressure to conform: Engineers who had initially raised concerns about the O-rings felt pressure to agree with the majority opinion and consent to the launch decision.
  • Self-censorship: Some engineers chose not to forcefully voice their concerns, fearing repercussions or damage to their careers if they were perceived as overly cautious or obstructive.
  • Illusion of unanimity: They mistakenly believed that there was a consensus among the engineering team that it was safe to proceed with the launch, despite the reservations expressed by some engineers.

The Swissair Financial Failure

Swissair, once known as the "Flying Bank" due to its financial stability and success, faced a dramatic collapse in 2001. The airline's downfall can be attributed to various factors, and groupthink played a significant role in the choices leading to Swissair's eventual failure.

During the late 1990s, Swissair embarked on an aggressive expansion plan involving acquiring stakes in several smaller airlines worldwide. However, this strategy proved costly, and many acquired airlines struggled financially, placing a heavy burden on Swissair.

The groupthink phenomenon manifested itself in several ways:

  • Illusion of invulnerability: Swissair's management believed that their strong financial position and reputation would protect them from potential risks associated with the acquisitions, leading to overconfidence in their expansion strategy.
  • Collective rationalization: They rationalized their aggressive expansion by focusing on the potential benefits of a global network and dismissing concerns about the financial stability of the acquired airlines.
  • Pressure to conform: Executives who questioned the wisdom of the Hunter Strategy may have felt pressure to agree with the majority opinion and support the expansion plan.

Both these examples serve as cautionary tales about the dangers of groupthink in decision-making processes. By fostering an environment that encourages open communication, critical thinking, and diverse perspectives, organizations can mitigate the effects of groupthink. This helps people make more informed decisions that prioritize long-term success and sustainability.

How to Overcome Groupthink in the Workplace

Once you know how to identify groupthink, there are many approaches you can take to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

Promote a Company Culture of Openness

Consider encouraging team members to voice their opinions and concerns, even if they differ from the majority view. Try to clarify that diverse perspectives are valued and constructive criticism is welcome. For your employees, that psychological safety will allow them to express different points of view or maybe even call out when they notice symptoms of groupthink.

Establish Clear Channels for Communication

Effective communication channels can help team members easily and clearly share their ideas, concerns, and feedback. This could include regular team meetings, anonymous suggestion boxes, or open-door policies.

Assign a Devil's Advocate

During decision-making processes, you can assign someone to challenge assumptions, question the group's direction, and present alternative viewpoints. This can help foster critical thinking and prevent the group from becoming complacent.

Encourage Individual Accountability

Consider recognizing team members that take ownership of their decisions and contributions. This can help them feel more comfortable expressing their opinions and prevent the pressure to conform to the group's consensus.

Seek External Perspectives

Outside experts or stakeholders can provide valuable input and feedback on projects or decisions. This can help ensure the group considers a broader range of perspectives and avoids becoming insular.

Provide Training on Group Dynamics and Decision-Making

Educating team members about the risks of groupthink and other cognitive biases can impact how they work. Consider providing tools and techniques for overcoming these biases and fostering effective group collaboration and decision-making.

Break Down Larger Groups Into Smaller, Diverse Teams

Smaller teams with diverse backgrounds and expertise can help prevent groupthink by encouraging a wider range of viewpoints and reducing the pressure to conform. It's helpful if each sub-team has the autonomy to make decisions and report to the larger group.

Celebrate Dissent and Reward Critical Thinking

You can also reward team members who challenge the status quo and contribute to a more informed decision-making process. It creates a positive work environment where individuals feel empowered to share their thoughts and ideas and can lead to better outcomes for the company.

By implementing these strategies, your team members can make a group decision that is more inclusive, innovative, and effective for the company.

Leverage Wellness to Improve Decision-Making 

Another way to help your staff improve their individual and collective decision-making is to promote health and wellness in the workplace. Taking care of our physical and mental health has been shown to boost executive function and cognition. This means that on top of the efforts to combat groupthink, your employees will also have more energy and focus to think critically and stand up for their beliefs. 

Whether you set up exercise classes or start a morning walking group, a consistent wellness program can impact your employees in more ways than one. 

More than 15,000 companies already trust their workforce wellness to Gympass. Our flexible subscription let employees access more than 50,000 wellness partners.

If you want to give your teammates a boost, speak with a Gympass a wellbeing specialist today!

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References 


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Gympass Editorial Team

The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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