Avoiding the Trap of Groupthink in Organization Design

When we undertake organization design work inside of companies, we sometimes encounter situations where we see the effects of groupthink first-hand.

The term “groupthink” refers to the tendency for decision making groups to take extraordinary measures to seek consensus without comprehensively evaluating a range of alternatives and potential consequences. Groupthink typically flourishes when members of a group (intentionally or unintentionally) suppress the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions. While groupthink does allow teams to reach agreement and finish projects quickly, it also carries significant risk of groups rushing to or making poor decisions. 

Group decisions are best made in an environment where information can be freely exchanged, alternative options can be considered and contrarian views are heard before decisions are made or action is taken. However, groupthink minimizes or even eliminates these necessary discussions. Groupthink can arise from such factors as an overly dominant leader; cultures that discourage dissenting opinions; a desire to avoid “making waves”; office politics; and groups too large for everyone to contribute. A number of poor decisions have been blamed on groupthink, ranging from NASA’s decision to overlook possible defects in rocket parts leading up to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to the Watergate scandal and subsequent coverup.

In some respects, organization design sessions provide a setting where groupthink can emerge. One of our goals when we facilitate organization design discussions – whether in an executive meeting or within the design process itself – is ensuring that we avoid falling into the traps of groupthink.

I’ve been in sessions with two organizations over the past few months where we encountered this challenge. At one client, we ran into similar comments from everybody who came into the meeting. They basically said, “We know we’re here to do something significant and meaningful. However, the leaders we work for have told us that they already know what the outcome should be. So, whatever we do, we need to back into those answers and line up our findings with how they think about things.”

This type of mindset is highly frustrating and counterproductive. After our first day in these work sessions, we confronted the team. We reminded the members that the group was brought together to challenge the conventional thinking of their leaders – and to think differently and think outside the box to find a solution. At first, they resisted. We eventually said to the team, “We can go back to your leaders and tell them you are hesitant to challenge their assumptions about the right answer. Or we can approach this business problem with an open mind and in a creative way.” They finally agreed to break from the restrictive thinking of their leaders and propose things they believe would really help the business. Once they were willing to move past the restrictions placed on them, the team did a great job thinking differently.

Meanwhile, we are working with another organization that is undergoing significant changes. Their leader told them, “Here’s what we need to do,” and his team said they agree with the approach. However, through their behaviors, we could tell they’re not fully committed to the agreed-upon direction. Now we are at a point in the project where we need to make some progress, but it is becoming tougher to move forward. The leader is pushing them to find a way forward, but it is unclear how they can follow a path that they obviously do not believe in.

As I think about these two situations, we are fortunate that neither of these groups has arrived at the point of making poor decisions – yet. However, they are on the cusp of potentially sub-optimizing what they could accomplish unless they rein in the tendency for groupthink.

How can organizations such as these move forward more effectively? Here are some suggested antidotes we use in our organization design work to overcome groupthink:

  • Set the expectation from the top that everyone needs to participate, and that all should speak openly and honestly.
  • The leader should make the effort to speak last. 
  • Play the devil’s advocate to challenge the consensus.
  • Encourage that the work be done in small groups. Breaking into sub-groups creates an environment where a few members of the group dominate the process. It also gives more people an opportunity to weigh in and contribute.
  • Encourage diversity within the groups of people who are involved in the work. Avoid involving people who all have the same viewpoints and experiences by actively seeking out those with diverse backgrounds.
  • Use a robust process to help take people through a different way of thinking.
  • Bring in experts or facilitators to add new perspectives and help the group tackle limitations in their thinking.
  • Provide sufficient time to weigh options and make recommendations.

The role of the leader in both enabling and mitigating groupthink cannot be overstated. One well-known example of groupthink is the failed 1961 U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba. Scholars have cited President John Kennedy’s closed leadership style as a factor in the poor decisions that led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. However, essentially the same group of decision-makers was involved in the more successful American response to Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis – a process in which Kennedy shifted to a more open leadership style and often deliberately skipped meetings to give his team the chance to work freely.

As the Kennedy examples illustrate, savvy leadership often determines whether organizations will fall into the trap of groupthink or mitigate its influence.

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