The term “groupthink” was first used by Irving Janus in 1972 when he was researching why teams made excellent decisions one time, yet made disastrous decisions another time. The two most famous and widely used examples of groupthink that led to disastrous outcomes are the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. In both cases, people had information that could have prevented the disaster, but the organizational climate was such that they were afraid to speak up. Janis found in his research that most catastrophic decisions were the result of lack of conflict or opposing viewpoints within the team.  When there is no conflict, there are no alternatives to analyze and teams have a tendency not to gather the necessary information to make an informed decision. According to Janis, groupthink usually happens when these conditions exist:

  • There is a strong, dominant, and persuasive team leader
  • There is a high level of cohesion within the team
  • The team is under a lot of pressure from the outside to make a good decision

As a senior executive, you need to be on the lookout for groupthink within your leadership team.  Healthy conflict is not only good for the team, it is essential for making good decisions. However, there is a danger that conflict can become negative and disruptive if not handled in a proper manner.

Senior leaders need to create an environment where team members are encouraged to challenge ideas and decisions. Sometimes, it may be necessary to force the issue. At one point in my career, I was assigned to represent Manufacturing on several product strategy teams. When our team presented our recommendations to the company president, he would always challenge our recommendation by asking why we didn't consider an alternative strategy. If we recommended a invest and grow strategy, he would ask why we didn’t divest and sell the business. Knowing that he was going to do this, we always had lively and open discussions in our team meetings about different alternatives. So, if you and your team are making a critical decision, make sure that you have explored alternatives.

Another technique that I use when facilitating a group of senior leaders in an organization, is to make sure that the top level person in the group does not speak first. Many times I found that once the top person has offered an idea or opinion, it biases the group tremendously. If you are not getting discussion or alternatives, avoid the temptation to fill the void of silence with your own ideas. Draw out others on the team by asking them what they think. Be attentive to non verbal clues that a person may disagree or have something to say. I see this in my client engagements all the time. I like to throw out statements or questions to get some reaction. Once I do this, I am observant of people’s expressions. As soon as I see something that indicates I struck a nerve, I will ask the person to respond.

Along this same line, it is important to allow each person on the team the opportunity to contribute and to avoid having one person dominate the discussion. One of the major reasons that people won’t speak up is that they are afraid of rejection or criticism for their idea. Here is a personal example to illustrate the point. When I was in seventh grade (over fifty years ago), the teacher asked a question and I raised my hand with the answer. My answer was wrong and the teacher made fun of my answer. Because of this, I was always afraid to raise my hand again.

It is best to separate the generation of ideas or alternatives from the evaluation of them. The brain has two sides. The left side of the brain is analytical and logical, while the right side of the brain  is creative. We have difficulty moving back and forth between the two sides of the brain, and we usually have one dominant side. So as soon as we stop generating alternatives and starting to evaluate, we are shutting down the right side in favor of the left side. Therefore, it works best to get all of the ideas and alternatives on the table before beginning to evaluate them.

Once you have created an environment where your team feels comfortable contributing alternatives, questioning key decisions, and sharing their opinions, you need to be careful to keep the conflict that is bound to occur positive. The focus should always be on the idea or alternative, not the person. One sure way to turn conflict negative is to create winners and losers. Sometimes the best solutions or decisions involve a hybrid of several different alternatives.

It is important that the evaluation of alternatives happen in the team environment. Discourage the “hallway meetings” where people lobby for their own idea. Conflict will turn negative if people feel left out of the evaluation process.

There are two types of consensus. One is pure consensus where everyone on the team agrees fully with the decision. The other type of consensus is where everyone on the team agrees to support the decision. Pure consensus is difficult, if not possible to achieve. Also, it may not be the best decision. On the other hand, practical consensus is the goal. Once the alternatives have been considered and a decision has been made, you should get verbal acknowledgement from each person on the team that they support the decision and expect their behaviors and actions to be supportive. This is one last chance for people to speak up.

If groupthink is a problem within your senior leadership team, it may be time to generate a little positive conflict. As Winston Churchill said. “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.”