Groupthink in Organizations

Why Creating a Culture of Candor Matters

$20,000 mistakes aren’t fatal, but if you can avoid them by asking a few good questions, it’s a good habit to foster.

I was once part of a leadership team that actively discouraged dissent. I learned (the hard way) that questioning the group’s decisions, especially as a new member and outsider, was not only frowned upon but would quickly have me sidelined. So I was forced to bite my tongue and pick my battles.

One relatively inconsequential decision was to buy hand sanitizer for each employee as a gift. We were in the beginning of the pandemic and hand sanitizer had been in short supply for a time, so it seemed like a good gesture. You probably remember when it was scarce, though that seems like years ago at this point. We also had a few businesses that were producing hand sanitizer locally. So we could make a nice gift for our employees, we could support local businesses, and it would be useful. All good things.

I had a few questions though (that I didn’t voice because this wasn’t a battle I was willing to pick). How much would it cost? If we did this, we wouldn’t do something else, so it would be good to think about what employees might value more for the money. How long would it take? While hand sanitizer had been in short supply for a while at that point, I was already starting to see it come back into stores slowly. So if it took too long, it may not be a meaningful gift for most people. Is it any good? I’d heard of some local hand sanitizer being better than others, so it would be worthwhile to know the quality.

It turned out that all of those questions turned out to be particularly poignant. The cost ended up being around $20,000 by my estimates, which would have bought an enjoyable meal for every employee. Which is arguably something everyone would have valued more. It also took months. It was a lot of bottles of hand sanitizer to produce and ship, so by the time everyone got their bottle, store shelves were overflowing with the stuff. In our house, we had stocked up several times over, and you can still find more than you’ll probably ever need. And finally, the hand sanitizer the company bought wasn’t great. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people threw it away.

Unfortunately, because of the culture of conformity, no one voiced a single dissenting opinion to the idea. Which was true for most ideas in that group. Groupthink was common, and bad ideas proliferated, while candor and dissent were in short supply because of the long-time culture.

Causes of Groupthink in Organizations

You can identify several symptoms of groupthink in my story above, especially if you recall my post from last week on groupthink.

The conditions were ripe, with a highly cohesive group of leaders who had been together for years with very few changes. They also preferred certain courses of action. Here, it was to buy hand sanitizer. In other cases, they had other pre-determined courses and no one could alter them. Those are prime conditions for groupthink. There were no real time pressures or external threats here, but in many organizations, time pressures and external threats add to the conditions of groupthink. If you have a looming deadline, leaders often don’t want dissent, they want consensus around their idea so they can move forward rapidly.

The symptoms of groupthink were also there in our hand sanitizer story, as they are often present in many organizations. There was incredible pressure toward uniformity in this group. This led to self-censorship, as I already mentioned. I personally said nothing. No one else did either. And that led to everyone believing that everyone else was fully on board with the idea. If no one speaks up, it gives the illusion of unanimity, which is a symptom of groupthink. But even if I had spoken up, other symptoms likely would have manifested. Like closed-mindedness. My questions would have been dismissed and rationalized, and I probably would have been increasingly labeled as someone who always disagrees (stereotyping). Finally, the group probably would have thought that this is a noble action by well-meaning people, so what could go wrong with it?

Why It Happens

Groupthink can happen to any organization and happens frequently. Some organizations are better about guarding against it than others, but it is in our nature to want to be part of groups.

A huge part of the problem comes when we value harmony and consensus over making optimal decisions. A group’s goal should be to make the best decision and get to the best outcome. But the team or group may often sacrifice that in order to achieve peace and avoid the conflict and stress that is associated with the process.

Additionally, as individuals, we often have little desire to be on the outside of the group. For our ancestors, being excluded from the group meant possible death and starvation, and those instincts haven’t left us. We still don’t want to be excluded. So we fear rejection and want to be “in”. That often means we self-censor to avoid conflict or raising objections to what appears to be unanimous decisions.

Finally, critical thinking is hard work. It takes a lot of effort to think deeply about a problem, understand and challenge our assumptions, and analyze possible outcomes. It is far easier to “go with the flow”.

It Can Be Better

We all fall victim to groupthink in some way or another. Some may be more shy in groups. Some may let their opinions dominate the group. Some company cultures may actively discourage critical thinking. And some, like myself, may be forced to self-censor at times, even when we’re more than happy to offer opinions and questions.

We’ll look at what groupthink looks like in product teams next week, and then how we can avoid the pitfalls of groupthink after that. So stay tuned and don’t forget to share with a friend or colleague who may be interested.

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