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Group-think is a phenomenon that has existed for centuries. Throughout history there are numerous examples of bad decisions made due to its presence. By definition, group-think is a condition where a cohesive group of people lack individual creativity or the ability to take on a sense of personal responsibility ( 1

The term "group-think" was first used in 1972 by Yale psychologist Irving L. Janis. Since then its presence has been oft-studied and carefully evaluated.  And for good reason. When an organization is afflicted with group-think, this can be a slippery slope with serious negative consequences if not addressed.

How Does Group-Think Occur?

The group-think phenomenon typically happens when individuals work closely together for long periods of time. Over the course time of working together, the members of the group can start to develop similar manners in rationalization and thinking, creating a situation that is comprised of little diversity of mindset or ideas.

If a group in the workplace appears to exhibit signs of group-think, it is important for leadership to first recognize the signs and then subsequently strive towards reducing these negative effects so they do not end up plaguing the organization and result in considerable problems.

Problems Associated With Group-Think

If a division of people become affected by group-think, unfortunate results that tend to occur include:

  • Poor choices being made, often repeatedly
  • People may put aside their own personal feelings, creating uniformity in opinion
  • A display of complacency emerges
  • Lack of innovation is shown by the group's members
  • Avoiding speaking up due to fear of causing divergences
  • Over-confidence - since earlier decisions may have had good outcomes, the assumption is often all decisions will be smart ones

Any of these characteristics can be red flags for any organization because they can directly affect how the organization operates and impact decisions made. Both of which can impact the organization's future or trickle down and affect people external to the organization.

[Related reading: A Look at the Problems and Dangers of Group-Think ]

There are a number of ways leadership can try to curb a situation of group-think. Solutions to sweep away this type of stagnant thinking can one or more of the following approaches.

Appointing a Devil's Advocate

One option is to appoint a person to play devil's advocate and intentionally bring up alternate ideas, consequential scenarios and interpose other comments with direct intention to spur reactions and see different perceptions or options. This gets the group thinking about a wider group of options beyond the preconceived “best” ways to do things which, in actuality, may not be a good way to go. The person chosen for the job should be articulate and knowledgeable so he or she can question any assumptions or plans that are brought up by the afflicted group. 2

Devil's Advocate
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A devil's advocate can help jump-start new discussions and create new dialogue within the afflicted group.

Selecting a Leader

Selecting a leader to try to keep an impartial focus on the issues being discussed is another way to reduce the negative effects that tend to arise when group-think is present. Since one of the symptoms of group-think is a tendency to see things in the same way for long periods of time, a leader who can add alternative focuses in the discussion when things creep into falling into old habits, can prompt new kinds of interactions to widen the scope of the group's thinking.

Encourage Critical Thinking

Critical and unbiased thinking is an important attribute to grow if the group-think tendencies are going to be eliminated or, at the very least, reduced. Leadership should continuously encourage team members to think critically and remain unbiased as they think about their comments, suggestions and solutions. It is often recommended leaders keep their own opinions to themselves (at least initially) and let the members of the group first express themselves.

Promote Free Expression

Leadership can also help eliminate group-think by promoting an environment that welcomes people to express any doubts they may have and to feel free to express any divergence they may be considering during discussions. One of the classic signs of group-think are an unwillingness to express any difference of opinion and, by encouraging free and open expression, this can help mitigate a team’s tendencies to fall back into group-think.

Getting Help from Outside

In any kind of group setting or brainstorming session, an outside person can be selected to challenge the group with a goal to try and interject new ideas or different approaches. This person can be selected through being appointing from another division or by hiring a completely external individual who has no bias or predetermined opinions.

Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter
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Set Up Independent Groups to Evaluate

Sometimes an individual can be selected to challenge the group, however, setting up an independent evaluation group is another possibility leadership can consider as a solution route.  This group can challenge and/or point out the problems observed that are leading to the poor decision-making that is occurring in an afflicted group.

Group-think is a condition that can be difficult to break, especially if the group has long-held the classic signs and behaviors of group-think. While there are bound to be hurdles to cross and challenges to overcome, it is not impossible to reduce the negative effects of group-think in the workplace. By using all or any combination of different strategies, those in leadership positions can do something about the problem and, as a result, create a clearer, more refined and diverse way of thinking in the workplace.

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In some cases uniformity can be more efficient and create a "well-oiled" workplace, however, too much uniformity is often problemsome. There is a lot to be said for the value of diversity.