Ralph Nader once said: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” The problem is, this is easier said than done.
Effective leaders inspire teams to collaborate in decision-making. This means choosing the best courses of action and integrating the ideas from your various team members. But the process for group decision-making can be flawed.
The problem is that leaders, when trying to promote leadership skills and individuality, can instead produce a mass of followers. And followers rarely innovate or take charge of a situation.
We call this groupthink. As a leader, it is important to recognize how it happens and how to move your team away from groupthink.
What is groupthink?
The term Groupthink was first used in 1972 by social psychologist Irving L. Janis. It occurs when a team seeks a consensus instead of an accurate analysis and critical evaluation.
According to Janis, groupthink is detrimental to effective decision-making in that “concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.” In layperson terms, groupthink causes people to follow the leader unquestioningly, sometimes without knowing it.
The key benefits of collaborative teamwork fall away when groupthink occurs. When a team pursues cohesiveness, individual creativity and independent thinking can get lost. This is especially true during times of intense pressure and time limitations. And groupthink can have disastrous consequences.
You can see examples of groupthink in political, policy and business decisions. Take, for example, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, and the Enron-Arthur Anderson Scandal. All of these could have been avoided if groupthink had been minimized.
You need strong, self-aware leadership to recognize the symptoms of groupthink. Here are some things to watch out for:
1. Group cohesiveness decreases the amount of verbal dissension. When a group is tight, there is interpersonal pressure to conform.
2. Group isolation creates group insulation from criticism. In many cases, group decisions have to be a secret. But without outside opinions, things can spiral out of control quickly.
3. Directive leadership (aka leader intimidation) happens when you have a powerful and charismatic leader. This can be hard to say “no” to.
4. Decision-making stressors (like extreme stress or limited time) can increase the possibility of groupthink. During times of high pressure, everyone may have some level of insecurity. To make things feel less insecure, people are more apt to try to reach an easy decision with little disagreement that everyone can get behind.
5. Lack of methodical procedures can oftentimes lead to disorganization and, ultimately, conforming to a decision too quickly.
6. Homogeneity in members’ backgrounds can result in similar opinions and pressure to avoid disturbing information agreed upon by the group.
8 signs of groupthink
Here are the eight main symptoms of groupthink to watch when making decisions, according to Irving Janis and Leon Mann:
1. Illusion of invulnerability causes group members to be too optimistic and therefore engage in aggressive risk-taking.
2. Collective rationalization prevents individuals from questioning beliefs and causes them to ignore warning signs.
3. Illusion of morality leads members to lose their individual beliefs in morality. The group decision supersedes any individual sense of right or wrong.
4. Excessive stereotyping alienates members who may oppose or challenge the group’s ideas. Lead members of the in-group can ignore or call out non-group members as outsiders.
5. Pressure for conformity is put on members who may pose questions or doubts. Those who question the group as a whole are seen as disloyal or traitorous.
6. Self-censorship happens when individual doubts are kept hidden for fear of group disagreement.
7. Illusion of unanimity leads people to believe that everyone agrees.
8. Mindguards are self-appointed censors that hide problematic information from the team.
How to avoid groupthink
Leaders have the power to influence a team to effectively work towards their goals.
Understanding and recognizing groupthink allows a strong leader to prevent groupthink or move their team away from it. If you foster an environment that gives team members the opportunity to express individual ideas as well as argue against proposed ideas, you’ll be able to triumph over groupthink.
Here are some actionable, easy-to-implement ideas:
1. When assigning tasks, avoid stating your opinions or preferences. Rather, give members time to come up with their own ideas first.
2. Assign at least one member to play the part of “devil’s advocate,” or “critical evaluator.” This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts. This can be a different person for each meeting. Studies show that teams using devil’s advocacy outperformed teams that didn’t.
3. Encourage the team to get to the heart of a problem and make the best decision possible.
4. Use the Six Thinking Hats approach. Consider all effective alternatives. Promote mental flexibility to determine strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots.
5. Discuss group decisions with an outside member to gather impartial opinions, or have the group invite outside experts to meetings. Cynthia Smith wrote, “When an expert is present, groups with directive leaders make better decisions than groups with non-directive leaders.”
6. Foster constructive criticism between members.
7. Minimize being present in group meetings to avoid overly influencing decisions.
8. Avoid immediately criticizing other ideas and insulting team members.
9. Encourage diversity. Research indicates that when there are many sources of diversity within a team, it becomes difficult for team members to form homogeneous subgroups.
Great leadership encourages a diversity of viewpoints to provide alternative courses of action. By maintaining a healthy atmosphere for divergent thinking, you will steer your team away from groupthink.
So burst that bubble and create more leaders instead of followers.
Charles Knippen is the president of The National Society of Leadership and Success (The NSLS), a leadership honor society that includes over 700,000 members across 500 campuses.