Why is groupthink bad? How to spot groupthink on boards

by Stephen Conmy


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We’ve all been there, in that meeting, the one dominated by the loudest voice and their ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ mindset. If this happens at the board meetings you attend, it’s a sign of possible ‘groupthink’, and it needs to be addressed.

Groupthink was first described by Irving Janis, a social psychologist, and occurs when a group of well-intentioned people work together to reach a consensus on a decision. The result is non-optimal decision-making and conformity within the group. The groupthink phenomenon discourages individuals from disagreeing with each other and especially the group leader.

What are the dangers of groupthink?

We don’t need to look too far back in history to see how disastrous groupthink can be. Lehman Brothers is probably the best example of what happened when groupthink became the dominant factor in banking boardrooms worldwide.

The groupthink epidemic developed at the top of the global corporate banking sector resulted in a catastrophic financial crisis and global recession.

The chairs of boards and CEOs of companies should be well aware of the damaging effects of groupthink. However, it is still more prevalent than absent in businesses today.

How can you spot groupthink on boards?

If you ask yourself the questions below, you will soon know whether or not you are in the midst of a groupthink board:

Is there self-censorship?

Individuals in a team stay silent about ideas or decisions contrary to those the group decides.

Have you seen stereotyping?

Those in the centre of a group can ostracise other members who disagree with their ideas through stereotyping.

Have you witnessed direct pressure?

Members who question a subject or the group are thought to be disloyal, so conformity is demanded.

Have you seen collective rationalisation?

Members will ignore warning signs and refrain from reconsidering their beliefs.

Are there any unquestioned beliefs?

Team members ignore obvious problems and the consequences of their actions.

Have you heard self-deluded opinions?

Groupthink can lead to overconfidence and the taking of potentially risky actions by team members.

What can be done about groupthink?

Play the devil’s advocate

Your role as devil’s advocate is to foment argument and conflict. In fact, this is one of the oldest and most commonly employed strategies to tackle groupthink. Take the opposite position and argue for that option/idea.

Encourage diversity

In a diverse group, group cohesiveness is maintained, and multiple perspectives are cultivated. A team with many sources of diversity will find that it cannot form homogenous subgroups and attack each other.

Monitor the size of the board

It is possible to keep a board lean (under nine people) so that members speak up instead of conforming to popular opinion.

Understand that conflict is not always bad

Depending on how the chair and board members perceive conflict, other practices can be implemented more effectively.

Remember, mindset matters

Genuine dissent, although important, is a difficult thing to achieve.

It takes time and patience to accept dissent. Be aware that the minority dissenters might be disliked and mistreated until all members accept this approach.

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