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? rbrenpZhmjDsMvQugQCjWner@ChacBhLFzQXxQAMLqEXwoCanyon.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:

Wooden shoesWhat Haven't I Told You?
When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of Challenger in 1986Towards More Gracious Disagreement
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
Freight Peer Exchange participants discuss freight business opportunitiesHow to Eliminate Meetings
Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could change our lives.
An Empire AppleVirtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention
There is much we can do to reduce the incidence of inattention in virtual meetings. Cooperation is required.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A computer mouse, the tool we use so often to hijack our own mindsComing December 7: Preventing Meeting Hijacking
Meeting leads, meeting Chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation, or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing hijacking. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
Bee with pollenAnd on December 14: Dealing with Meeting Hijackings
When you haven't prevented a meeting hijacking, and you believe a hijacking is underway, what can you do? How can you regain control? Available here and by RSS on December 14.

Coaching services

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

Strategic Thinking for Project People
When Strategic Thinking for Project Peoplewe think tactically, our focus is the "next doable step," or perhaps, the next two or three doable steps. When we think strategically, we place far more emphasis on the longer-range objective. In project work, effective strategy can dramatically reduce the level of tactical effort required to achieve the longer-range objectives. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for 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
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.