Is Your Team Suffering from Groupthink?
Lately, you’ve noticed something “off” in your team’s dynamic. You once had spirited discussions and meetings peppered with laughs and arguments, but now there are more passive consensuses and silences. It’s unsurprising that employees seem more reticent these days; at least 40 million Americans lost their jobs this year due to COVID-19, so workers may not want to challenge the status quo. However, the change in your team may be more than just a sign of the times—it could be a symptom of Groupthink. We’ll talk about what Groupthink is, how to recognize it, and how to move away from it and toward a positive team culture.
Where Groupthink comes from
Groupthink in business happens when a group makes faulty or ineffective decisions just for the sake of reaching an agreement, according to the Corporate Finance Institute. Psychologist Irving Janis created the term in 1972 to describe suboptimal decisions made by group social pressures. One frequently cited example of corporate groupthink is Swissair in the 1990s, which was once doing so well it earned the nickname “the Flying Bank.” The company restructured its board of directors to create a more homogenous group of members with similar business backgrounds and eliminated some members with industry expertise. Losing that expertise and diversity in perspectives from the top-down was a big reason for Swissair’s financial collapse in 2002. When a desire to be “one of the gang” surpasses the desire to find the most logical solution, it can lead to poor decision-making and serious consequences for a business.
Signs of Groupthink on your team
Some signs of Groupthink may be easier to spot than others. Like in school, peer pressure can creep into workplace culture. For example, a team member may not always want or have the time to attend weekly after-work happy hours but others could make them feel like they have to. Another sign is self-censorship in meetings and discussions when some team members don’t want to deviate from the group consensus and keep quiet. People also may mistake a majority view or decision to be unanimous, and those with different views may be reluctant to contribute.
Other indicators of herd mentality may be more ambiguous. For example, you may have team members who’ve been at the company for a long time. You notice they’re content doing the same thing all the time and going along with the status quo. From the outside, they seem devoted and happy at the company, but they also might be too comfortable and unwilling to try new things, welcome new ideas, or push back. Complacency not only inhibits their own career growth but also holds your team back—and consequently, the company—from progressing. Perceptions of invulnerability are also dangerous to team cultures, as we saw with the SwissAir example. Additionally, your team may unknowingly stereotype others, but not in the context of discrimination based on age, race, etc. They may have stereotypical or negative views of their “enemies.” For example, say if you’re a marketing group where one or two people complain about a salesperson. The rest of the marketing group may take on that perception, which can affect the relationship between the sales and marketing teams.
How to encourage cognitive diversity
If Groupthink exists on your team, it’s time to address your concerns with them. Without mentioning names, you can discuss that you’re witnessing signs of complacency and self-censorship. Ask your team members why they may hold back and feel like they can’t speak up. Remind them that you hired each one of them because you value each person’s unique perspective and contributions. Another point to make is that cognitive diversity drives organizational success with positive effects like more innovative decision-making and a more effective organization.
After making your team aware of Groupthink behaviors, the next step is to ideate and set into motion tactics to improve the dynamics. In meetings where you notice silences, encourage people to speak up and give differing opinions. You can even appoint a “devil’s advocate” on your team for each meeting who questions group decisions and makes counter-arguments. Recognize team members who come up with and implement creative ideas that help the company, either through praise, an incentive, or employee recognition awards. Another way to encourage cognitive diversity is to invite people from other teams to your meetings. They can offer their ideas and perspectives and familiarize themselves with how your team works, and it will strengthen your relationships across the company. When there are openings on your team, strive to interview and hire people with different experiences and viewpoints. Look for “culture add” over “culture fit,” as Fast Company says. Prioritizing culture fit can lead to homogeneity, while culture add helps bring in new perspectives and abilities to drive change.
Make sure you have a healthy team culture
Groupthink can inhibit progress and growth and create a culture of sameness. When you recognize it on your team, work with your team to vocalize new ideas and differing opinions, and bring in outside perspectives. When your team feels empowered to be authentic and innovate, it results in a stronger organization overall.
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