The term “groupthink” was first used by William H. Whyte, Jr. in a 1952 article in Fortune magazine, and was then researched extensively by Irving Janis. He described the phenomenon in Psychology Today (1971) as:
“…when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action… the term [groupthink] refers to a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgments as a result of group pressures.”
When sitting in a meeting, how does groupthink stop us from raising a contradictory point, disagreeing with the consensus, or pointing out something people have forgotten or aren’t aware of?
Janis says there are three main reasons we go along with the group rather than speak up as individuals:
1.We assume that the group is always right and has a strong sense of morality.
2.We doubt any ideas that are contrary to groupthink, and negatively judge people who bring those ideas forward.
3.We seek uniformity and unanimity, and equate groupthink with loyalty.
What do we give up when we give in to groupthink?
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Einstein
When the same group keeps discussing the same problems in the same way, everyone is coming from the perspective of what they already know to be true.
If groupthink inhibits people from introducing new ideas, questions, doubts or opinions, the group and its solutions will never rise above the thinking that created the problem. They will be trapped by their own limits.
If people are more focused on keeping the peace and blending in, they won’t feel inspired or even permitted to tap into their innate creativity. Fires may be temporarily put out, but nothing will ever really change or grow.
The most innovative, productive and prolific thinkers in the group will always be wrestling with the conflict of holding back their creativity. Ultimately, they will probably look for another situation where their unique contributions are valued and put to use.
Groupthink also makes people hesitant to bring up or talk about potential pitfalls and risks, or put contingencies in place to deal with those things. Since the group must be right, so must their ideas, so why plan for anything different? This line of thinking can have devastating results.
Meetings are better without groupthink
Without groupthink, your meetings have the potential to capture the best and most original ideas from each person. Together, you can channel your imaginations to transcend your limited thinking and find new successful ways to achieve your goals.
If groupthink is making your meetings less effective, creative and satisfying, try the 7-step “note-and-vote” meeting structure used at Google Ventures. It emphasizes individual brainstorming and voting so people are free to express their individual ideas and opinions.
Have you ever experienced groupthink? What made you go along? Have you ever gone against a popular group opinion? What happened? What is the most creative group brainstorming experience you’ve ever had? What tactics made that creativity possible?