Symptoms of Groupthink

First Things first, What is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. He describes Groupthink as a situation whereby each member of the group attempts to match their opinions on what they believe to be the current consensus of the group. The result of a team having Groupthink as a practice or habit is that the team can make bad or irrational decisions. Another result is that dissenting opinions do not come out into the open to be discussed. Or other options that may be more beneficial are not reviewed.

Obviously, Groupthink is difficult to identify and even more difficult to overcome. Unless the organization’s leaders take an active role in making certain Groupthink is monitored and corrected when appropriate. In order to do this, people need to understand what Groupthink is.

To help people identify when Groupthink is occurring, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms that are indicative of Groupthink. We will go over each of them in detail.

  • The first is the “illusion of invulnerability”.

    • The group members may believe that the group will be successful at anything it endeavors. They may ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and be overly optimistic. We have found that the higher the degree of expertise a group has, the more this symptom will occur. This was one of the main symptoms that surfaced in the Challenger disaster.
  • The next symptom is the “belief in the inherent morality of the group”.

    • Members of the group may discount warnings which challenge the assumptions they have made. They may ignore judgment others have of their actions and decisions. The group may rationalize that their moral compass points at a truer North than others. By taking this stance, the Groupthink symptom of “belief in the inherent morality of the group” overrides that of other groups. The group has used their moral compass or view of ethics to position themselves as more moral or ethical than others. By so doing, they become isolated from societal norms taking on the moral morns of their Groupthink.In some cases, this form of Groupthink has increased the judgment others place upon the group thereby having them suffer from the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions. An example of this is corporations using child labor or cheap labor to produce goods. The leaders who made the decisions at one time or another must have known that these practices were not morally correct. But, they justified their decisions in management meetings where Groupthink ruled. Their Groupthink Moral compass may have pointed to their fiduciary responsibility. To their stockholders to make more money rather than society’s judgment of how best to treat fellow human beings.
  • Another symptom of Groupthink – “collective rationalization”.

    • This occurs when members discredit warnings and do not question their assumptions. One of the reasons IBM lost market share was that their management team refused to heed warnings that smaller computers were the preference of the larger marketplace. The team responsible for putting together IBM’s marketing strategy consistently refused to examine competitive information and marketing polls. Together they bolstered each others’ ways of thinking and ignored the marketing data. They ignored trend patterns of their customers and industry analysts. The result was hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. What’s worse is, IBM has never regained its top seat in the computer industry.
  • The next symptom of Groupthink – “out of group stereotype”.

    • This is when the group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group. This manifests itself in an ‘us versus them mindset’. Let’s look at an example of this. A client in an insurance company said that the marketing department refused to include any members of the sales force in their strategy meetings. Including the meetings to develop sales materials for the salespeople. The salespeople complained about the materials. They thought the promotional materials produced rarely hit the mark. The sales members made a concerted effort to boycott the materials the marketing department produced. They refused to use them with prospective customers. These actions further cemented the marketing department’s stereotyped views. The sales people’s thought they were incompetent fools who couldn’t sell their way out of a paper bag. This pattern continued for years. Luckily, a new CEO looked at the problem and decided to force the two departments to deal with the issue. He changed the structure and had both departments report to a VP of Sales and Marketing. The new VP brought in a skilled coach to lead an intervention session. The goal was to have each department view the other department’s position. He had them argue their points from the other perspective. This didn’t solve the problems, but it was a start.He put in place mechanisms to hold the team accountable for working cooperatively together. One of the tactics he used was to be adamant that the team create a charter of team behavior. They created a Team Commitment Contract. This contract detailed how they would agree to behave toward each other. He monitored these to ensure the departments did not slip back into their old ways. This approach went far in breaking entrenched out of stereotype thinking that had become systematic.
  • Another symptom of Groupthink is when “self-censorship” occurs.

    • This crops up when members withhold their dissenting views and refuse to put forth counterarguments. Have you ever been in a room where you know people are not putting their opinions out for discussion? This happens frequently! Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that never make it to the table. Even worse is when this behavior is combined with Hindsight Bias. When people refuse to address the issue because they refuse to speak up but then, after the fact, are compelled to state that they knew all along what the result would be. If this behavior is a habit pattern, team members will not respect this type of posturing. This is highly detrimental to the team and makes the individual look like they are passing judgment. Albeit in hindsight on the team. This does not foster teamwork and detracts from the person’s leadership currency.
  • The next warning sign of Groupthink – the “Illusion of unanimity”.

    • This is when members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision. Silence is seen as consent. A skilled leader trained in drawing out dissent, ideas, and opinions can alleviate some of the consequences.
  • One of the worst indicators of Groupthink – “Direct pressure on dissenters”.

    • This occurs when members are pressured not to express arguments against any of the group’s views. If group members show any dissent or disagreement with an idea held by the group, the members who agree with the majority will persuade pressure, compel, or coerce others until they comply. This is not limited to dissenters, ambivalent, and neutral members are also forced to conform to the Groupthink of the majority. This type of Groupthink is prevalent in political parties. Close-knit departments. And in areas where people tend to perform the same job functions. The direct result of this behavior is an increase of stress in the group. This is particularly true of the people who realize one or two members of the team are coerced against their will when they step up and let this behavior continue without intervention.A recent example of this symptom occurred prior to the collapse of Enron. People knew that individuals were pressured to go along with the corporation’s direct. Even when they knew the directives were wrong. This caused stress on many levels. However, those who exhibited the most stress were those who knew what was wrong. Unfortunately, they stood by and let this happen to their coworkers.
  • The final signal that Groupthink is occurring in is the presence of “self-appointed, mind guards”.

    • These people will shield the group from dissenting opinions that threaten the group. Information may is filtered before it reaches the group. Mind guards seek to control decision-making trade space and options that are put in front of the group. An example of this is Scientology or cults. They control the information that their followers receive. They also will attack those who speak out against them.

Learn more about Groupthink and Decision Making in our online “Enterprise Development Suite program.  Contact us for more information. Group Pricing available.


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