Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 28;   July 9, 2014: What Groupthink Isn't

What Groupthink Isn't

by

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

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
isn't proof
of groupthink
group 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Constancy Assumptions  Next Issue

Order from AmazonThe 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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenzHnLIaocaqouhgywner@ChacBDPCNMFgbAXsmntyoCanyon.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.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

The Thinker PowerPointingThink 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?
A small workgroupMastering Q and A
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
A view of the site known as the Rock Garden, on MarsHow to Ruin Meetings
Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
The "Good Work" team of Damon, Csíkszentmihályi, and GardnerCosts of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: II
When we interrupt a meeting to recap the action so far for a late-arriving attendee, the cost of the recap itself is just the beginning. There are some less-obvious costs that can be even greater.
Promotional poster for the 1957 film Twelve Angry MenThe Opposite of Influence
The question of why some people are so influential has a partner question: why are others largely ignored, or opposed, even when their contributions are valuable?

See also Effective Meetings and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A human marionetteComing November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
Desperation at workAnd on December 6: Reframing Revision Resentment: I
From time to time, we're required to revise something previously produced — some copy, remarks, an announcement, code, the Mona Lisa, whatever… When we do, some of us experience frustration, and view the assignment as an onerous chore. Here are some alternative perspectives that might ease the burden. Available here and by RSS on December 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhXGlITkAZWLfiUkoner@ChacrzJfFvWiSWwopxXqoCanyon.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

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof 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 a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy new blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.