Decision Making: A New Approach to Groupthink
June 18, 2018 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
Approx. read time: 4 minutes
“In fact, the only sin which we never forgive in each other is difference of opinion.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Decision making, as it relates to management, is perhaps the most ubiquitous issue in business. The challenge of groupthink is one of those ‘problems’ you don’t hear much about these days. Is it possible that we threw the baby out with the bath water?
Just to be clear about terminology, groupthink is a phenomenon whereby individuals within a group strive for consensus to the extent they set aside their personal opinions and, in some cases, ‘inconsistent’ facts. While there is appeal (especially in a business context) for fast, “orderly”, “efficient” decisions, the trade-off can outweigh the benefits.
Two well-known generally accepted examples of groupthink’s negative aspects in action (or lack of the same) are the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and The Bay of Pigs Invasion. Needless to say, many others have been attributed to groupthink.
“A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Looking at Groupthink
“A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Teams are capable of being much more effective than individuals but, when groupthink sets in, the opposite can be true.” (www.mindtools.com)
Let’s take a step back: the early (and still relevant) classics are:
- Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink.
- Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.
Janis did a great job of identifying the “symptoms” which I have tried to interpret in a business sense:
Illusion of invulnerability: Bravado that leads to bad decisions
Collective rationalization: Dismissing information that does not support the common idea
Belief in inherent morality: Believing yours is a righteous mission blinds you to consequences
Stereotyped views of out-groups: Believing anyone who does not agree with you is bad
Direct pressure on dissenters: Creating an environment where being a dissenter is a career limiting role
Self-censorship: Intimidation whether it is self or crowd induced is counterproductive
Illusion of unanimity: Struggling to get the magic moment when “all agree”
Self-appointed ‘mind guards’: In extreme form (perhaps because it would be a career limiting move) individuals withhold contrary info
As always, there are critics. “Janis develops his model by looking at major past policy decisions. An additional concern mentioned in the research is the derogatory use of the groupthink term as a way to criticize decisions that may not, in reality, be faulty.” (Groupthink theory and its implications for group decision making methods) The issues here relate to predictive/casual nature.
At our firm (Kirchner Group), we rely on a gross (but effective) over simplification. If two partners see things exactly the same, then one is unnecessary. After some years, we came across a more articulate version offered by General Patton.
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton
However, there are numerous more ‘formal’ guidelines that have been proposed. The following are ideas I have seen over the years plus some that have evolved at our group:
- Start by challenging assumptions
- Be crystal clear about objectives – include alternatives
- Make it clear there are no reprisals for challenges
- Group leader states their view last – maybe even encourage a meeting without leader
- Recruit one member to be contrarian
- Solicit comments from non-group members
- Make it clear there are contingency plan(s)
- Stress personal accountability (not just a group decision)
- Deploy pre/pro mortems (When is the best time to decide why you failed?)
“The important thing about groupthink is that it works not so much by censoring dissent as by making dissent seem somehow improbable.” – James Surowiecki
In closing I recommend a particularly well-done treatment of this topic that can be found in Chapter 7 of Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.
“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself, we never show any judgment in the matter of living, but always a blind trust and a mistake that has been passed on from hand to hand finally involves us and works our destruction.” – Seneca
- Kendra Cherry – What Is Groupthink?
- www.decision-making-solutions.com – Groupthink theory and its implications for group decision making methods
- Adam Grant – Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World
- Janis, Irving L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Second Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- www.mindtools.com – Avoiding Groupthink
- www.psysr.org – What is Groupthink?
Relevant Business Brain Model articles
About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.