What is groupthink in a workplace and why does it happen?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

While having a team that agrees is incredibly useful for a business, it can also be counterproductive for innovation. Businesses thrive when different team members can provide alternative ideas and challenge each other. When team members feel safe to present their opinion, it can lead to better decisions and stronger overall processes. In this article, we explore what groupthink is, the symptoms in the workplace and how you can avoid the habit when working in a team setting.

What is groupthink?

Originally coined by social psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that can occur within teams across the workplace. In most cases, people set aside their own beliefs to adopt the opinions of the wider team to reach a consensus. This typically results in people remaining quiet to keep the peace rather than going against the group's decision, even if it seems wrong or irrational. This can be problematic in the workplace, especially when pressure from work peers can lead to poor decision making.

Why does this type of thinking happen?

This is a pattern that often happens because people are anxious that their opinions or objections may see them rejected socially or the overall harmony of the team disrupted. This can be destructive for a workplace over the long term, leading to stagnation and a lack of innovation.

In practical terms, you might see an idea presented in the workplace that you don't agree with. While the rest of the group seems happy to act on the idea, you're worried it's the wrong choice. It's important to weigh up whether to voice your opinion or go along with the idea for the sake of keeping the peace.

Primary causes

Several factors can lead to this psychological phenomenon. This can happen in any workplace, regardless of the industry. Some major causes are:

Strong leader influences

It can result from a charismatic or powerful leader commanding the group. In response, team members take on the opinions and worldviews of the leader. For smaller teams that are much more close-knit, this can be a common problem.

Group identity

It's more prominent amongst teams that are very similar to each other. When there is a strong, recognisable group identity, the members of that group may often see themselves as better or superior. This results in anyone outside of the group being treated with less trust.

Low knowledge of skill

When team members have less knowledge about a topic that someone else may be more qualified in, they're more likely to engage in group thinking around the topic. This is a common way for group thinking to start and can often build into a more widespread problem. For teams with varying experience levels, this is a common problem.

Early signs and symptoms

There are several symptoms of group thinking originally developed by Janis to highlight these issues. These can signal a need for improvement. The symptoms are:

  • Self-censorship: This is the most commonly exhibited symptom when individuals in a wider group may not voice opinions that are contrary to the general ideals of said group.

  • Illusions of success: A group that is exhibiting signs of group thinking might have a very high opinion of their abilities and may be over-optimistic in riskier situations.

  • Group rationalisation: Those experiencing group thinking often refuse to reconsider any of their shared beliefs and sometimes ignore issues that arise.

  • Direct pressure: Sometimes, groups may see a central key member place direct pressure to ostracise other members on the periphery.

Recognising group thinking patterns in the workplace

The symptoms above can help to identify broad patterns of group thinking. Across many workplaces, other subtle examples may emerge. Once you know these, you'll be in a better place to fix issues before they start. Some signs include:

Uniformity across teams

Individuals that have similar backgrounds or similar life experiences are more susceptible to group thinking. Diversity can be very useful within a team, as it allows new ideas to break through and different perspectives to be considered. This could lead to further innovation and can stop issues of stagnation in the workplace.

An environment of fear

If team members feel anxious at the thought of providing honest feedback, this could be a sign of group thinking. This usually occurs when people worry about the potential for disciplinary action. This also manifests when team members worry about being ostracised.

A general feeling of apathy

Complacency is a clear sign of groupthink, especially in meetings or strategic votes. If employees appear disinterested in making innovative decisions and simply agree to the most popular idea, this may also be a sign. Then, it's important to encourage team members that their contributions matter, as this can develop and foster a culture of openness, which can lead to more open lines of communication between team members.

Intimidating figures

An intimidating leader can be a major contributor to this pattern of thinking. Intimidating behaviour is typically overriding other opinions, adopting a ‘know-it-all' approach, or actively shutting down discussion around a topic. Once this negative environment is in place, many workers are less likely to share their opinions.

Long-term impact

If left unchecked, group thinking can lead to important information being ignored and poor decision making in critical situations. Catching it early on can avoid damage over the long term, especially when these poor decisions contribute to a larger strategy. Although these issues can build up to create an ineffective strategy, the primary issue is how it affects the decision-making process. Group thinking is also not the same as conformity, whereby individuals change their behaviour to fit in with a crowd. While conformity can also lead to issues in the workplace, it has less impact on the decision-making process as opposed to group thinking, which directly affects it. Other costs can include:

  • slow and inefficient problem-solving following the suppression of individual opinions

  • self-censorship, which can lead to the entire group not collectively realising the potential risks and benefits

  • individuals or even entire groups believing themselves superior, which can provide problems for any figures on the periphery

Related: Team-building tips and activities to boost employee morale and engagement

Correcting resulting workplace issues

Depending on how ‘established' the mindset is within a wider team, the more difficult it can be to diminish. With that in mind, certain strategies can help promote openness and good communication, which can benefit productivity and innovation. Some of the key ways to improve these situations are:

1. Encourage a sharing environment

The most important way to avoid group thinking patterns is to build a culture of participation. If the members of a team understand their opinions are valuable, they'll be more likely to share. This approach encourages clear decision making and subsequently, a more positive environment. You can cultivate this by:

  • building a diverse team with different backgrounds

  • encouraging alternative viewpoints in group sessions

  • keeping an objective focus when reporting or analysing

  • remaining open and positive to new ideas

  • avoiding overly negative criticism during the decision-making process

2. Maintain open communication

Regardless of your position in the workplace, open communication is vital. Team leaders may consider engaging with the entire team, rather than focusing on those who are being the most vocal. Similarly, other members of the team may specifically ask for suggestions from people they wouldn't usually engage with. Evaluate how everyone communicates with each other. You might find that more dominant personalities are overriding meetings and encourage other team members to be more proactive or vocal.

Related: Communication skills: definitions and examples

3. Look at both sides of a discussion

If you're a team leader, it's important to consider both sides of any discussion. Encourage other team members to do the same. Being critical can be incredibly useful in a group patterned setting, provided it's constructive and delivered intending to enact positive change. This can strengthen overall decision-making and encourage clear communication.

4. Provide plenty of time for decision making

If you're asking for opinions or decisions from your team, allowing plenty of time and providing a clear deadline is vital for getting a real outcome. A rushed team is more likely to make a decision based on group thinking, especially if they're being pushed for an answer. Consider allowing the team to make decisions without micromanagement. This typically makes individuals feel more valued over the long term.

Related: Decision-making skills: definitions and examples

5. Always look to question process

While this strategy can be useful in mitigating this type of thinking, it's something that all workplaces might look to adopt. Regularly questioning processes can help keep individuals open to change, encourage innovation and deliver consistent progress. If you regularly review operational procedures in team-orientated situations, individuals then make optimal decisions.

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