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Groupthink – The Dark Side of Teaming and How To Counteract It!

By Kathryn Daut, TQM Officer

I. Summary of Recommendations and Conclusions

Conclusion: Groupthink and consensus decisions making are two phenomena that can occur in the same environment. Facilitators and leaders must consider and take appropriate actions to avoid the former while striving to achieve the later.

Recommendation: Team leaders and facilitators need to take positive actions to counter the impact of group thinking, including using appropriate tools to:

II. Problem Statement: To understand and evaluate group thinking and consensus decision making. To develop conclusions and recommendations to foster consensus decision making and restrain forces that lead to group thinking.

III. Summary of Facts: Consensus is finding a proposal acceptable enough that all members can support it; no member opposes it. It is not unanimous vote – a consensus may not represent everyone’s first choice. Some tools to achieve consensus include: structured discussion, reverse roles (what DeBono calls) "other Point of View," multi-voting, and nominal group technique.

Groupthink prevails when the "need to conform" is operating. It is believed that Groupthink was operating during the "Bay of Pigs." There are other situations where Groupthink is thought to have been operating, including mass suicides and juries delivering illogical verdicts. Similarly, in "The Abilene Paradox," people end up going where they do not want to go, because they think the others want to go there and failed to express their honest preferences. In Groupthink, what is achieved is a false sense of consensus. Irving Janis in his book Victims of Groupthink originated the term groupthink. It is considered a disease of healthy groups, making them inefficient, unproductive, and irrational. Janis identifies a number of causes including: cohesiveness, working in isolation, biased leadership, and decisional stress.

IV. Analysis of Facts: Tables 1 and 2 contrast Group Thinking vs. Consensus Decision-Making to illustrate how the phenomena are different and similar:

(Table 1) Groupthink vs. Consensus Decision-Making – How Are They Different?


Consensus Decision Making



Less secure in individual expertise

Individual Expertise

Fear to express divergent thinking

Express diverse points of view

Leader exerts undue influence on outcome

Outcome is criteria driven



Reticent group members

Confident group members

Member fear

Member Courage

Respect of authority or position


Extremely cohesive

Variable – forming, storming, norming and performing

Unreserved acceptance

Healthy skepticism



Biased Leadership

Unbiased Leadership

(Table 2) Groupthink vs. Consensus Decision-Making – How are they similar?

Unity of Purpose

Decisional Stress


Guided by team leader

In a Boolean sense, the area of interaction is on the need to arrive at a group decision that everyone can live with. To achieve that goal, some members may attempt to take a short cut and will not go through all the steps to achieve a well thought out and logical group decision. How do these dynamics contribute to Japanese style of management, which is considered among the most effective? Table 3 looks at Asian cultural differences that align with Groupthink.

(Table 3) Asian Cultural Tendencies that align with Groupthink

Respect of Authority – not cause leader to lose face

Conformance – not stick out in a crowd

Reticent – Do not say what they are thinking if it may be perceived as impolite

Collaborative – Do not want to be viewed as uncooperative

Just as there are tools to achieve consensus, there are tools to achieve constructive conflict or tension. While dysfunctional conflict impedes the achievement of organizational goals, conflict also generates information and ideas, fosters innovation and change, reduces stagnation, leads to higher productivity, and helps identify problems. Another way to monitor group dynamics and offset decision-making disease is the regular use of critique and assessment of group effectiveness. Three conditions are associated with critique: active listening, effective feedback (what happened during the meeting) and disclosure (share true feelings). Other tools for reaching consensus can also be used to create constructive conflict: reverse roles, multi-voting, and nominal group technique. Reverse roles are used to foster the other persons point-of-view, where the person against the idea must assume the position of support and argue in favor of it. Multi-voting helps to find the highest priority within a list without creating a win-lose situation. Nominal group technique, because of its low interaction, is an effective tool when some group members exert too much influence.

There is an Asian saying, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." This saying indicative of the need to conform and not stick out within this culture noted for group cooperation. The Japanese style of management is noted for reliance on collaborative behavior. Collaborative behavior certainly contributes to achieving consensus; however, it is just that tendency that can also result in Groupthink, where each member is not bringing all of his/her intellectual power to the table because they are mentally backing off to achieve a communal objective. Group thinking is a negative phenomenon that can result from group behavior when the dynamics are such that members are consciously or unconsciously not expressing their true views.

In contrast, consensus decision making is optimized when each group member brings individual perspective and expertise to the process, where they speak openly about all facets of a decision without prejudice for the position by a more senior member of the team. Team members should all feel empowered and encouraged to raise any issue –there should not be any "sacred cows." Diverse opinions should be valued as bringing all perspectives to bear on a project, thus contributing to the early identification of any forces that could ultimately hurt the project objectives in the long run. A tool helpful in encouraging the identification of forces that seek to both support and inhibit a change is Force Field Analysis. While this tool is generally used as a technique to develop an effective implementation, I believe it is also useful to break context. This tool is particularly useful in getting reticent members to use their creativity to contribute by the identification of both the supporting and detracting factors to a concept the group is considering. Since the identification of negative forces is part of the exercise, the person is at less risk by raising them than if this were done in an environment that was only considering the positive aspects. Another tool that is useful to break the context trap is DeBono’s Plus Minus and Interesting (PMI). By using PMI, groups identify all facets of an idea, that is, pluses, minuses, and interesting factors. This tool aids a group in considering all factors. It is the identification of interesting factors that is most likely to break context traps associated with the issue. Structured discussion also aids in reaching decisions by consensus. Structured discussion ensures all members have an opportunity to participate in decision making. The development of decision criteria helps ensure that the decision is centered on the notion of independent criteria rather than personalities or intra-group relationships. Given the norms associated with the Asian culture, one can understand how they must take conscious effort to counter Groupthink. Perhaps its the Japanese’s effectiveness in using tools to achieve consensus decision making that protects them from falling into Groupthink. The effective use of tools is necessary for group dynamics to counter Groupthink.

Team leaders and facilitators need to be savvy and understand the warning signs of Groupthink and take quick action. The introduction of an expert with the opposite point of view, the planned absence of the leader, or having the leader introduce question of basic premises, are all effective techniques to break the context trap that groups can quickly fall prey to. President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, purposely did not attend all the meetings and had experts (devil’s advocates) with a differing point of view speak to the group to counter Groupthink.

V. Recommendations and Conclusion Discussion

Conclusion Discussion: Groupthink and consensus decision making are two phenomena that can occur in the same environment. Members within a group cannot always distinguish between them. Facilitators and leaders must consider and take appropriate actions to avoid the Groupthink while striving to achieve a consensus driven decision. This is especially important if the group is homogeneous and cohesive.

Recommendations Discussion: Team leaders and facilitators need to take positive actions to avoid Groupthink, including creating constructive conflict within the group, breaking context to avoid context traps for participants, fostering the role of devil’s advocate, ensuring a heterogeneous group and using tools to foster the open expression of all points of view. When the cohesiveness of a group intensifies, its members are more likely to accept the goals, decisions and norms without reservation. Team leaders should be cognizant that their early expression of opinion can impact and inhibit an unbiased discussion of a project. Therefore, leaders should hold back expressing their opinions until lower level people on the team have expressed their points of view. Not only should the senior person hold back with a position, but they should also openly solicit open discussion to bring out all points of view. The leader’s behavior must reinforce that diverse points of view are not only welcomed but also valued. This is not obviating their leadership role, but rather understanding that once they take a position, others may not feel free to express a differing point of view, which could be viewed as divisive. Obviously the culture of the organization impacts the openness with which lower echelon members participate, but even in the most open organizations, people are reluctant to contradict the boss. As Andy Grove astutely points out, "It takes years to build a climate of openness, but one impulsive act by a senior person to a divergent point of view can quickly destroy it."

Kathryn Daut is the TACOM-ARDEC TQM Officer since 1989. She is currently enrolled in the Stevens Institute of Technology (SIT) Master of Technology Management Program.

Note: This is an extract of a paper that Kathryn Daut prepared for SIT Emerging Technologies Class.


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