What Groupthink Isn't
by Rick Brenner
The term groupthink is tossed around fairly liberally in conversation and on the Web. But it's astonishing how often it's misused and misunderstood. Here are some examples.
Marching chickens, a metaphor for groupthink. This image was found using a Web search for images associated with "groupthink." As I interpret this image, it conveys the idea of unthinking unanimity. Unthinking unanimity can be a factor contributing to groupthink, but much more is required, and, of course, groupthink can be present without it. Many of the results of that image search, such as this one, emphasize only one of the elements of the groupthink pattern. These images are responsible, in part, for the widespread idea that manifestation of any single element associated with groupthink — most often, it seems, unthinking unanimity — is evidence of the presence of groupthink.
But groupthink is much more complex. One of the elements of the pattern is closed-mindedness — a general failure to seek additional intelligence or information from sources outside the group. Ironically, it is this failure that also contributes to the prevalence of the belief that groupthink is defined by a single element of the complex pattern Janis exposed. Image courtesy Northwestern University.
The term groupthink was coined in 1952 by Wiliam Whyte, and again, independently, in 1972 by Irving Janis. It denotes a particular kind of dysfunctional group decision-making, in which agreement becomes more highly valued than any realistic assessment of alternative courses of action. The phenomenon is complex, but briefly, groupthink is indicated by eight specific symptoms, which Janis categorized in three groups: overestimation of group power and morality, closed-mindedness, and pressures toward uniformity. You can find many reliable sources for further insight about groupthink. But my purpose here is to examine some of the commonly recited, but incorrect, definitions of the term.
Most of the misconceptions fail because they make "single-bullet" assumptions about groupthink. That is, they are of the form, "I observe behavior X, therefore groupthink is in effect." In each case, it's easy to construct a scenario that exhibits the observed behavior, but which doesn't necessarily imply groupthink. Here are three examples.
- Unanimity of opinion isn't proof of groupthink
- Unanimity is consistent with groupthink, because closed-mindedness and pressures toward uniformity clearly can lead to unanimity of opinion.
- But unanimity doesn't imply groupthink. For example: if you ask a group's members if the Earth is round, most groups would unanimously agree that it is. But that agreement isn't a result of groupthink — it's founded on a shared acceptance of objective data. Unanimity alone isn't proof of groupthink.
- When members support something because everyone else supports it, groupthink might not be the cause
- It's true that in groupthink a member's perceptions of gathering consensus can cause that member to adopt the emerging opinion. But pressures to conform can be present even when groupthink is not. In groupthink, members actually internalize the group's views; mere compliance isn't enough.
- For example, there's a cognitive bias known as conformity bias, which is the tendency of group members to adopt beliefs in conformance with what they perceive are the group's beliefs, with greater likelihood than they otherwise would. It's possible for that bias to affect some members, or even all members, in the absence of groupthink.
- When members hold their disagreement to themselves because they fear being ostracized, groupthink might not be the cause
- Although fear of the treatment of dissenters can indeed be present in groupthink, its presence isn't proof that groupthink is occurring.
- Consider a Unanimity of opinion
of groupthinkgroup that has engaged in unethical behavior. Its members recognize that revealing the incident would have serious career consequences. All openly agree to keep the matter private, except for one, who keeps silent. One of the conspirators turns to the reluctant member and asks, "And do you agree?" Fearing ostracism, he replies, "Yes." Is this groupthink? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Much depends on what else is happening. What we know for certain is that intimidation is afoot. Fear of ostracism can be an enabler of groupthink; it isn't proof of groupthink.
Groupthink is a pattern. It has many components. The presence of any one of them suggests the possibility of groupthink, but in itself it is not proof of groupthink. Top Next Issue
The best source for more insight about groupthink is Irving Janis. See, for example, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Boston: Wadsworth, 1982. Order from Amazon.com
Another useful reference: Clark McCauley, "The Nature of Social Influence in Groupthink: Compliance and Internalization," in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, v. 57:2, pp. 250-260, 1989.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmAzynaCCpWQmxHriner@ChacbVzkgaCaMXGfjSzkoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Think Before You PowerPoint
- Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
- When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct. What is going on?
- Take Any Seat: Part II
- In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- Problem Not-Solving
- Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
See also Effective Meetings and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 1: Ending Sidebars
- We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without having been recognized by the Chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can we end sidebars quickly and politely? Available here and by RSS on July 1.
- And on July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
- When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenaBeIwVPDmwBFhHwDner@ChacYKYvxbXHJCaricbroCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management, its application to organizational efforts, and how workplace politics enters the mix. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history and workplace politics. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: