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Understanding groupthink: The perils of too much agreement

How important is it for your team to be cohesive? Very important, of course. This unanimity helps in swift and efficient decision making, leading to greater progress.

I always believed in this obvious idea until I read about the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.

Many will remember this horrific incident – the shuttle breaking apart in smoke and flames mere seconds after takeoff, killing the seven members on board.

Years of investigation and analysis have revealed that a compelling reason for the technical mishap was the faulty decision-making process followed in the run-up to the Challenger shuttle launch. The team behind the launch inadvertently enacted an instance of groupthink.

Groupthink is explained by the pioneer of the term Irving L. Janis, a Yale psychologist, as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

So the decision makers on the Challenger project ignored early warnings regarding safety which were never brought up again as they operated with a sense of invulnerability. They worked so closely that even if somebody had a doubt, he/she was not willing to challenge the decision to launch and this created the illusion of unanimous agreement.

I’ve found that groupthink is pervasive in professional interaction, especially when the top management has failed to respond to the challenges of changing market conditions. Team players tend to have such confidence in their group’s decision that they are unlikely to raise any doubt about these actions. Thus each member does not believe in his/her own thinking and conforms to the group decision.

 

This could be for two reasons:

  • Fierce loyalty to each other that could lead to ignorance of a piece of information crucial to decision making.
  • A strong leader voicing his or her opinion in the initial stages, causing the opinion of the whole to team to move in that direction.

 

Beating the groupthink tendency

In my professional interactions at Embitel and even otherwise, I make a conscious effort to prevent groupthink from creeping in. Indeed, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of groupthink.

One way is to avoid making a final decision during the first meeting, and then convene a second one to clear lingering doubts and decide.

In cases when the team tends to concur with the leader, the leader can voice his/her opinion after everybody else has had a chance. Or, to avoid any domination, leaders can be appointed on rotation.

I often play the devil’s advocate, dissenting, arguing and encouraging the voicing of doubts and the consideration of all alternatives.

On occasion, when I find the decision has been taken too quickly without any debate, I call for a second meeting.

Preventing groupthink calls for encouraging argument, but not at the cost of cohesion. It is necessary to rebuild the rapport after the decision has been made and the air is less charged, and reestablish that the team is working towards the same goal.

Sharad Bairathi is a Managing Director at Embitel Technologies

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