Groupthink is a term describing the idea that people in a group or meeting will stay quiet out of fear of the disagreement of others. It’s easier to remain quiet and have the meeting end or have the group move on than to spend another hour in disagreement or having to defend one’s beliefs or opinions:
Collective decision-making failures are often attributed to group members’ unwillingness to express unpopular opinions, and incident investigations frequently name lack of dissent as a causal factor (Sunstein, 2006). The investigation following the Columbia space-shuttle explosion, for instance, cited a culture at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in which “it is difficult for minority and dissenting opinions to percolate up through the agency’s hierarchy” (Columbia Accident Investigation Board, 2003, p. 183).
Long-standing psychological explanations refer to “groupthink” (Janis, 1972) and a “spiral of silence” (Noelle-Neumann, 1974), positing that group members are reluctant to publicly express private concerns about collective problems if they believe that other members are likely to disagree with them.
Having worked at a number of companies over my career, I can tell you this is a very real phenomenon and has silenced my own opinions on more than one occasion. It is just easier sometimes to swim with the current than to try and fight against it (especially if you don’t hold a popular opinion).
Combined with the previous research on the topic, you might think there’s no hope to combat groupthink. Since there are very real social costs to dissent within a group or organization, people with alternative opinions are expected to remain silent. When dissent is expressed, it is expected to come from those who care the least.
But new research recently published in Psychological Science suggests that there may be exceptions to groupthink and ways to overcome it when it is encountered.
In a new series of experiments, volunteers who weakly identified with their group (e.g., those who do not value being a student at their university) remained silent if they thought there might be dissension.
Volunteers who strongly identified with their group were more willing to express their concerns, regardless of how they viewed others’ opinions. As the study notes, strongly identified members are thought to be more attentive to group-related problems, and perceptions that the status quo is harmful to the collective may trigger expression of dissenting opinions. These folks may be more willing to bear social costs associated with dissent in order to improve group outcomes.
The researcher notes that the “pattern among strongly identified members is perhaps best described as “vigilant”; if there was reason to suspect a potential problem was harmful to the group (either because they thought so or believed that other group members did), strongly identified members publicly expressed heightened concern.”
The key to putting these findings into practice is to cultivate members who most strongly identify with the group’s goals and mission. These are the folks who can squash groupthink dead in its tracks when it occurs, and help ensure that all members’ — even those who weakly identify with their group — opinions are heard. This can be a simple leadership skill readily taught by describing the problem with groupthink (potentially valuable dissent is never heard nor considered), and its solution (identify and assign strong-identity members and counsel them in ways to be vigilant in such meetings and group projects).
Groupthink can be deadly to an organization and kill innovation. Stopping it in its tracks helps keep your organization flexible, fresh, and open to all ideas and dissent. These are key to reducing the “Yes boss!” atmosphere that can become prevalent, especially as organizations age.
Packer, D.J. (2009). Avoiding Groupthink: Whereas Weakly Identified Members Remain Silent, Strongly Identified Members Dissent About Collective Problems. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02333.x