Don’t be like the Borg! How to avoid ‘groupthink’

Just like the Borg, in Star Trek, groupthink can permeate a team, a department and an entire organisation.

More recently, we’ve seen it at full play during the US Presidential elections.

It can be dangerous. It can lead to bad decisions. It can see organisational change go down the wrong path. It can see an organisation self-destruct. It can see board members make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

What is it?

The term ‘groupthink’ was first coined by Irving Janis in his work exploring group dynamics. One of the examples he looked at was the Cuban missile crisis during JFK’s presidency. By reviewing situations such as this, Janis found that groups are more likely to make poor decisions because of pressure from the wider group.

Why is it important to understand it?

Groupthink has important implications for leadership, change management and organisational effectiveness.

If you’re in a leadership role, it’s important to know that your team are comfortable in challenging each other (and you) in order to get to the best decisions for the business.

It’s important to know that the changes being made are what’s best for the long-term future of the business. Knowing when to change tactics, including when to stop a change that is no longer right, is key to success.

Groupthink can see ancient policies and processes continue to be used.  Approaches that no longer make sense and which impact your customers and in some instances, put their lives in danger.

How to spot it?

The eight characteristics of groupthink are:

Invulnerability: the group tends to be over-optimistic, take extraordinary risks and have absolutely no inkling of any threat to the business.

Rationale: the group tends to be very quick to explain away any evidence that doesn’t fit in with their policies.

Morality: just like the three wise monkeys, the group is blind, deaf and dumb to the moral and ethical implications of the policy or approach they are pursuing.

Stereotyping: the group tends to stereotype their perceived enemies (i.e. any intransigents who dare question what they’re doing). They will ignore any evidence that challenges their thinking and assumptions.

Pressure: any doubters have subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) pressure exerted on them in order to keep them quiet. Group members don’t push the few doubts they may have and are allowed to express.

Self-censorship: group members are extremely careful not to express any doubts outside the haven of the group.

Unanimity: once a decision is made, any opposing views are carefully screened out of group members’ minds.

‘Mindguards’: group members set themselves up as bodyguards to the decision, tackling anyone who challenges it. In effect, collective responsibility is used to stifle any disagreement outside the group.

How can it be tackled?

If you are the leader, you can tackle groupthink by creating an environment that is conducive to constructive challenge. One way to do this is through role modelling the behaviour – asking pertinent questions, giving others space and time to think and come up with alternative ideas.

Creating feedback mechanisms during organisational change is another way to tackle groupthink. Team briefings, webchats, focus groups and ideas labs are just some of the ways this can be achieved.

Getting external facilitation for key decision points can be helpful. Groupthink thrives in a closed environment – one where external points of view aren’t welcomed. The very act of getting external support can off-set this.

The first step in all this is simply to heighten your awareness. Watch the groups you lead, or groups you’re part of for signs of groupthink.

Challenge and constructive questioning are the anathema to groupthink. Resistance needn’t be futile!

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