One of the greatest pitfalls of a successful organisation is when it succumbs to a “groupthink” mentality.
Psychologist Irving Janis first coined the word in 1972.
His research suggested that “groupthink” — a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people — is the mode of thinking that happens when a decision-making group tries to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints.
The main negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity and independent thinking, although in certain contexts, it can also help expedite decisions and improve efficiency.
A much-cited classic example of groupthink that had disastrous results is the Bay of Pigs Invasion by American forces in the 1960s during the Kennedy administration.
The invasion plan, begun by the Eisenhower administration, gained momentum in the Kennedy White House.
Some of President Kennedy’s advisers tried to present their objections to the plan but were ignored.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made many wrong assumptions, including the weakness of Castro’s army and the ineffectiveness of Castro’s air force.
The groupthink that pushed for the invasion to go ahead resulted in a humiliating defeat for America.
Today, many organisations have to be wary of falling prey to groupthink. They can avoid this phenomenon by practising the following guidelines:
Play the devil’s advocate
When a group has to make decisions based on past experience, assumptions, theories and evidence that has not been fully substantiated, it is always good to appoint a few people in the group to play the devil’s advocate.
These group members are given free rein to assess and analyse the issues.
Any objections must be taken seriously by the other members so that the final decision is arrived at without fear or favour.
Engage in deliberate thinking
This is a process of going through the steps or stages of the decision-making process one at a time to identify how the decision that is to be made can be further refined and improved.
Thinking of possible ways the decision can fail is also a useful exercise.
These actions will raise opportunities to tweak the decision-making process to make it more effective and successful.
Come up with a contingency plan
There is no such thing as a “best-laid plan”. Every plan will have its loopholes and flaws that might not surface until it is put into action.
This is why many organisations come up with a contingency plan — the proverbial Plan B. It typically lays out the solutions or steps to take should the first plan fail.
Even if a detailed contingency plan cannot be drawn up immediately at the decision-making stage, it is important for the team leader and his team members to think one through.
For example, many companies have a contingency plan that involves organising staff into groups that will work at separate locations should a serious epidemic occur.
The idea is that if some employees are sick, the spread of disease is minimised and unaffected staff can still carry on the business operations from elsewhere.
Another reason why groupthink may occur is ego.
As people rise up in life through their expertise, rank and social position, their level of self-esteem rises accordingly. There is nothing wrong with this. After all, they worked to become successful.
Groupthink happens when these people feel that they cannot learn from anyone else who is not in their league.
Often, people on the lower rung of the corporate ladder may be able to give a fresh perspective on a subject.
So, successful people need to be open to new suggestions and assess different viewpoints before criticising them immediately.
In the corporate world, businesses are constantly looking out for opportunities. Whatever the situation, an opportunity is only as good as the business leaders’ ability to maximise the potential in exploiting it.
To do this, leaders and their managers have to look at ways in which the venture will succeed and the circumstances when it might just fail.
Eventually when they decide to take action, they know that they have considered the issues from all angles — that they have not fallen prey to groupthink, which may negatively impact the success of the business.