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Can we rethink groupthink?

An uncommon approach to finding common ground

Let’s face it, groupthink needs a serious public relations makeover. After all, it’s been blamed for everything from the mass resignation of major league baseball umpires in 1999 and the abuse scandal at Penn State, to the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Even before the term was coined in 1952 by William Whyte in his book The Organization Man, the nature of groupthink had the power to persuade us to go along to get along. The urgency to conform convinced villagers in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes to not only look the other way, but to see things that didn’t exist. And Henry Fonda stood by his convictions in the face of groupthink as Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men. From fairy tale to film classic and business bestseller, we learned that when we move from like-minded to all of one mind, we abandon reasoned debate, reality testing, and moral judgement in the interest of rigid group solidarity.

11 Angry Conformists

Groupthink and pressure to conform is strong at the beginning of a group’s life cycle when people suppress their thoughts to fall in line with the majority.

Culture of Conformity

In the workplace, our desire for harmony drives us along the path of least resistance where counterpoint is not welcome in the search for a single mindset. It’s a route we know won’t lead to a daring destination.


of the subjects in an experiment conducted by Solomon Asch gave obviously wrong answers to conform to group consensus

Philanthropic foundations that have the luxury of operating outside traditional political or business cycles and pride themselves on taking the road less traveled in search of bold solutions, should be especially mindful of not detouring into a groupthink dead end. Author and critic Wally Neilsen, who wrote about American foundations and served as an advisor to Ewing Kauffman in the early years of the Kauffman Foundation, warned, “It is a waste of important potential if foundations do not make use of the special freedoms they have been given … to facilitate change rather than automatically endorsing the status quo.”

The trick is to promote “thinking together” as a reasoned alternative to groupthink. The uncommon approach to finding common ground discourages people from seeking only one side of the story. It retains the passion of an individual and the power of conscience. It runs counter to technology distractions, trendy quick fixes and the extreme partisan atmosphere that place more value on cheering each other on than moving society forward with fresh perspectives.

“Supportive community interests like foundations, or like public entities, are at their best when they’re providing resources, encouragement, and some level of expectation. They aren’t imposing solutions. It is very much an organic strategy of connecting people and linking resources together rather than simply trying to sell a new idea or a new policy, or a new approach to a tired audience,” said David Warm, who serves as executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City and is often invited to a seat at the table of collaborative efforts.

Thinking Out Loud

Often in collaborative settings “how” we are going to do something gets in the way of actually getting something done. A common connotation of groupthink implies full consensus with little debate and little concern for what actually happens as a result of our collective actions. Thinking together and out loud, from the earliest stages, enables the group to identify a shared and authentic challenge, a potential objective, and explore ways to address the challenge and achieve the objective. Step one is to identify a bold vision and any “non-negotiables” that may exist to achieving that vision. Establishing these ground rules for the group is especially important in the early stages when people first come together to develop norms of behavior and the pressure to conform is high.

The effort to develop the Kansas City Scholars program began with the ambitious expectations that it would apply lessons from decades of work in supporting college completion and serve more students than ever before across a larger geographic area with better results. The non-negotiables were to prioritize low- and modest-income students, establish a network of postsecondary partners, focus on completion at a high rate rather than simply access to college, include adult learners, and serve a broad swath of students across the Kansas City metro area – not just the highest performing or most well-positioned learners.

With the vision and non-negotiables in place, and some information to help start the process, a group of 70 leaders from the education, business, civic and community sectors worked for over a year in committees and workgroups to identify key challenges, establish a program framework, and support the launch of Kansas City Scholars with a high level of consensus and enthusiasm. The conversations weren’t easy, but a well-honed vision gave the group a fixed focus.

Avoiding Undue Influence

Influential community interests should seek to provide resources. encouragement and some level of expectations, without imposing solutions.

David Warm on Avoiding Groupthink

Carrying a shared vision and process to fruition will only work if the communities or individuals most impacted by a particular challenge or circumstance have an active role in identifying that challenge, setting that vision or objective, and considering ways to address it. Along the way that means inviting new voices to be heard and ensuring the door is kept open to individuals, organizations, and communities as the work unfolds.

Outlining the design principles necessary for building thriving ecosystems to support entrepreneurs, participants at the inaugural ESHIP Summit talked about creating a culture of invitation where everyone is welcome. Participants from across the country were encouraged to be “radically inclusive” to bridge gaps in the ecosystem. They were reminded, “The first inclination for any new initiative should always be to invite new people and organizations into the community, to find new ways for actors to connect, collaborate, create, share credit and find mutual benefit.”

The first inclination for any new initiative should always be to invite new people and organizations into the community, to find new ways for actors to connect, collaborate, create, share credit and find mutual benefit.

From the first ESHIP Summit

The Urban Neighborhood Initiative and the Midtown Community School Initiative are examples of movements that grew from grassroots efforts led by Kansas City families. Both groups were fueled by the energy of their missions, diverse and inclusive environments, and a unity of purpose to advance education in their communities.

The Urban Neighborhood Initiative was created through a partnership between the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Greater Kansas City. It established collaborative relationships with residents of Kansas City’s east side and launched partnerships with business to increase prosperity and improve health and safety, and with foundations to establish a new charter school in partnership with the Kansas City Public Schools district.

The Midtown Community School Initiative issued its own national request for proposals soliciting partners with the capacity and willingness to launch and operate high-performing schools with a racially, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse student population. After being selected as a partner, Citizens of the World Charter Schools spent two years meeting with families and community organizations, paving the way for the launch of Citizens of the World Kansas City. In both cases understanding what needed to be built was key to getting a group together to begin assembly.

A group is capable of achieving more than any single person or organization is able to do individually. Longer-term, transformative returns on investment are more possible with more resources and greater commitment around the table. However, it’s important to note that true group collaboration implies compromise, longer time horizons, and a good faith effort to be part of a group seeking to achieve a common end. It’s difficult work and there will be missteps along the way, but it’s worth pursuing if we are willing to think together without all thinking alike.

Symptoms of Groupthink

Social psychologist Irving Janis says groupthink occurs when a group or individual makes faulty decisions because social pressure in the group leads to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, ability to decider the reality, and moral judgment.”

He has documented eight symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability
    Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization
    Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality
    Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups
    Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters
    Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship
    Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity
    The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’
    Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

When the above symptoms exist in a group that is trying to make a decision, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen.  Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision.  When pressures for unanimity seem overwhelming, members are less motivated to realistically appraise the alternative courses of action available to them.  These group pressures lead to carelessness and irrational thinking since groups experiencing groupthink fail to consider all alternatives and seek to maintain unanimity.  Decisions shaped by groupthink have low probability of achieving successful outcomes.

Members of the Forbes Coaches Council offer tips on not falling into the groupthink trap.

An emphasis on group collaboration may actually be hampering creativity.

A republishing of the original Fortune magazine article by William H. Whyte, Jr., in which he coined the term groupthink.

What Do You Think?

We’d like to hear about your experiences with groupthink. Have you seen groupthink in action? What tactics do you think are helpful in avoiding groupthink?