Collaborative decision-making can be a powerful tool, but leaders should take care to ensure teams are engaging in critical thinking and not succumbing to groupthink.
When an important decision needs to be made at work, it’s often our first instinct to call together a group of minds to tackle the problem. After all, two – or five, or 10 – heads are better than one, right?
While studies have shown that groups tend to make better decisions than individuals, the benefits of different perspectives and expertise among group members can only be leveraged when they feel comfortable expressing those perspectives, even when they contradict the current train of thought.
When a group dynamic leaves teams reluctant to challenge the ideas on the table, the desire for consensus can lead to narrow-mindedness and poor decision-making – a phenomenon also known as ‘groupthink’.
“When people who come together to discuss an issue converge on a particular direction or perspective, and start to self-silence or silence voices that might dissent, there can be an excessive alignment that can sometimes lead the group in a bad direction,” says Jennifer Overbeck, social psychology expert and Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School.
“[Maybe] they’re trying to impress each other, or they don’t want to rock the boat or they don’t want to seem like they don’t know as much as their colleague does. So, for all sorts of reasons, people will land on a wrong answer early, and then everybody just gets really aligned behind that wrong answer.”
What is groupthink?
The term ‘groupthink’ was coined by psychologist Irving Janis in the 1970s, who used it to characterise the way a group setting can interfere with good decision-making. Janis identified a number of symptoms of groupthink, including the illusion of invulnerability, an unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and stereotyping of those outside the group.
Decisions affected by groupthink, he said, tend to overlook alternative courses of action and ignore the risks involved in a given decision.
Janis referred to a number of historical examples of foreign policy decisions that were likely influenced by groupthink, including the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs invasion. In a more modern context, some have attributed online ‘cancel culture’ to mass groupthink.
In a workplace context, groupthink can creep into decision-making when employees feel pressure to conform to the majority opinion or the views of a dominant leader within the group, even when they have reservations or alternative ideas.
Or, a group may be reluctant to change course or admit mistakes, even in the face of mounting evidence that their decision was flawed, because they have invested time, effort and/or resources into the chosen path – a phenomenon known as the ‘sunk cost fallacy’.
According to Overbeck, teams can be particularly susceptible to groupthink when the presence of a senior leader leaves junior employees afraid to speak up.
“Anytime there’s a power difference, there’s going to be a tendency for people to say the things they think the powerful person wants to hear. And the more power distance there is, the more pronounced that will be,” she says.
“Unless the leader takes steps to prevent that, and really explicitly says that decision quality matters more to them than agreement or their own view, power can have a big impact [on groupthink].”
Decision-making is also not the only area where groupthink can cause harm at work, she adds.
“It’s even things like, ‘What is acceptable behaviour?’, ‘What kind of culture do we have?’ or ‘How do we treat people?’,” she says.
For instance, if someone has a reputation as a ‘star’ worker, this collective perception of them might lead us to overlook any damaging behaviour they might display.
“Because there’s such a strong norm to congratulate and celebrate the person, it takes on a momentum of its own and that person is just a superstar whether they deserve it or not.”
“Anytime there’s a power difference, there’s going to be a tendency for people to say the things that they think the powerful person wants to hear.” – Jennifer Overbeck, Professor of Management, Melbourne Business School
What steps can leaders take to minimise groupthink?
To help keep groupthink under control, Overbeck advises a number of strategies leaders can use to ensure critical thinking is able to thrive in a group setting.
1. Cultivate an environment where employees feel comfortable voicing their views
To prevent groupthink arising in team settings, leaders’ most important goal should be creating a dynamic where all group members feel safe to express their point of view and speak up when they have questions or contradictory views.
As well as ensuring all members of the group are given the chance to say their piece, leaders can help to facilitate this by modelling good behaviour when it comes to taking criticism, says Overbeck.
“One thing I’ve seen some leaders do very skillfully is to demonstrate really clearly that they are willing to change their mind. A lot of times, leaders feel like they have to show strength by being very consistent: ‘I came in saying I believe X, so I need to be consistent and make sure that I follow through with X.’ But that won’t necessarily get you the best-quality decisions.
“If you come in and instead you say, ‘I’m starting off thinking X, but I want to hear what you all have to say,’ then they can ask questions like, ‘What could be wrong with X?’ or ‘What would be the worst-case scenario if we did X?’ If they make a habit of this, [they] model what it looks like to gracefully and confidently change [their mind] even though they’re the boss.”
Another way to create an environment where employees feel comfortable to speak up is to reframe the purpose of the meeting away from decision-making, she says.
“[Instead], frame the purpose of the meeting not as making a decision, but as getting all of the information out and trying to understand the problem as clearly as possible.
“When we know there’s a decision to be made, and think success means we walk out here today with a decision, that changes the discussion. When [leaders] explicitly say at the beginning of the meeting, ‘The goal today is not to make the decision, the goal is to make sure that we understand the space of the decision as fully as possible,’ that usually will allow information to come out in a way that helps to inoculate against groupthink.”
Read HRM’s article on how to facilitate healthy dissent in the workplace.
2. Assemble diverse groups for decision-making
If the key to group decision-making is to leverage more than one perspective, assembling employees from similar backgrounds and areas of the business may end up being a recipe for groupthink. As author Edward Abbey once said, “Where all think alike, there is little danger of innovation.”
Studies have consistently shown that diverse teams make better decisions than homogenous ones, given the broad range of perspectives they bring to the discussion.
However, Overbeck cautions that the value of diverse teams is only realised under an inclusive leader.
“In the hands of an unskilled leader who doesn’t know how to work with different people, then you actually see more self-censoring, [and] more silencing of voices on the basis of identity.“
As well as demographic diversity, Overbeck suggests ensuring that teams have functional diversity, bringing perspectives from different levels and areas of the organisation, which will help teams make well-informed, strategic decisions.
3. Appoint a devil’s advocate
To counteract a groupthink dynamic created by ‘yes’ people, organisations can designate a ‘no’ person, or a devil’s advocate.
The role of the devil’s advocate is to take a more critical perspective to the ideas on the table, presenting contrary opinions and asking important questions about issues that may arise as a result of the decision.
However, Overbeck warns that there are right and wrong ways to employ the devil’s advocate model in a workplace context.
“Devil’s advocate will fail if there’s always one person who’s the devil’s advocate, and [it] will fail if that person is self-appointed as the devil’s advocate, because we tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s just [this person]. [They’re] always making noise about everything,’” she says.
“The devil’s advocate works when we have rotating devil’s advocates, and everybody knows they’re going to take a turn. So it’s not about being a crank and trying to derail everything – it’s my job. I’m going to do it today. And you’ll have to do it next week. [That way], you’re not going to make as many negative attributions.”
A larger-scale alternative to the devil’s advocate strategy is dialectical decision-making. This model involves assembling two teams to deliberate opposite courses of action, who then come together to present their findings.
“It’s a really good technique, but it’s a lot more intensive,” says Overbeck. “Dialectical decision-making is better when there’s really high uncertainty, and your team’s sketching out what [they] think the future could look like under these conditions. [This model] allows everybody to latch on to a vision of something to be able to debate that uncertainty.”
By leveraging these models to combat groupthink and encouraging an atmosphere of openness to others’ ideas, Overbeck says leaders can help enhance ‘group intelligence’ among teams.
“We have IQ, [which is] an intelligence factor for individuals. [But] there’s also a group intelligence factor,” she says.
“You might think the intelligence of a group was just the sum of individual intelligence, but it’s not; groups develop an intelligence that’s not related to just adding individual intelligence together. And [something] that seems to really matter for group intelligence is social awareness and being sensitive to each other.
“That suggests that the more we can promote social sensitivity to each other, being tuned in to each other, being connected to each other, pausing to listen, asking good questions, setting aside our own needs for a minute and thinking about that other person, all of those things should be really, really helpful for avoiding groupthink.”
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