Silence does not equal agreement – How teams fall into the trap of Groupthink

“Unless anyone has any objections…” – Part 1

Groupthink: Cindy was having a really busy Monday morning at Smart Kitchen. She had just gotten off of the phone with two of her HR managers; one wanted to tell her that one of the company’s top talents had just resigned, and the other wanted to complain about a local leader creating a difficult work environment. She was trying to put out those fires, when suddenly she realized she was late for the weekly executive team meeting.

Cindy quickly walked to the meeting, and sat down next to the Head of Manufacturing Ted. She had always liked Ted, and seemed to really appreciate HR’s perspective to the business. Sometimes he could be a little dominating, but overall, he was a good guy. On the other side of Ted sat Sofie, the Head of Marketing. She was relatively new to the company, having just come from a small Bio-Tech company. Even though she had no kitchen appliance experience, Cindy had championed for Sofie to get the job, and so far, she had brought a great new energy to the team.

Rupert, the Head of Sales, came in chatting with Jim, the CFO. Both seemed to be taking their time talking about their weekend activities. No one was really paying attention to the CEO, Jesper, at the front of the room. Cindy thought he looked a little stressed, as he walked back and forth in front of the presentation.

“Now that everyone is here, we can begin” grumbled Jesper. “This weekend, I was playing golf with Matt from Fasttrack Distributors. I don’t need to remind you that Fasttrack accounts for about 15% of our sales, and is a top partner in getting our products to market. Well, it is because of that relationship that Matt wanted to give me a heads up. It seems, that Cooking Tech is launching a new microwave that you can control with your phone. Fasttrack is supposed to get the first shipments in 3 months. I want a plan for how we can beat those smug Cooking Techies.”

Silence filled the room, and a lot of eyes waited for someone else to speak first. Finally, Rupert spoke up. “Our own smart microwave is still 6 months off, but we could probably cut that time in half. Ted, what do you think?”

Eyes shifted to Ted, who was looking through his papers. “We could do it, but in order to have the product in 3 months we will have to reduce some of our features. The coding and testing for our main features just won’t be done in time. In 3 months, we could produce a ‘semi-smart’ microwave.” Cindy chuckled.

Smiling, Jim added “Most of the Cooking Tech people I have met could be described as ‘semi-smart’, and I’m willing to bet good money that their microwave is only semi-smart as well. Their products are nowhere near ours in terms of quality and functionality. Even if we reduce our quality for the first launch, I’m sure it will be better than Cooking Tech’s.”

“I agree” said Jesper. “We all know that being first to market is critical in our field. That’s who our customers will associate with from then on.”

“But doesn’t that go against our brand” asked Sofie. “We always aim to have the features that customers need. Why should we decrease our quality now?”

“Listen, Sofie, the appliance industry is just different than Bio-Tech” replied Rupert. “We always have time to improve our microwave later, but we only get one shot at being first.”

Sofie looked she was about to say something, but then she bit her lip.

Leaning forward on the table, Jesper confidently exclaimed “Unless anyone has any more objections, I think we get to work immediately on launching our own microwave in 2 months. Who is with me?”

Ted, Rupert, and Jim were all nodding their heads, while Sofie sat with her arms crossed.

“Cindy, you’ve been quiet. You agree with the plan… Right?”

Silence does not equal agreement - How teams fall into the trap of Groupthink - image Groupthink-cartoon-300x241 on

The Science

We’ve all been in a situation where everyone else seems to be going along with an idea, and when it gets to you there is a lot of pressure to agree like everyone else. Since human beings have evolved as social creatures, the desire to be a part of a group is significant, and it can take a lot of courage to stand alone from the group. We want to be part of the ‘ingroup’, and our natural reaction is for harmony amongst the group.

But this natural desire for harmony in a group can lead to dysfunctional decision making and a lack of innovative ideas. People choose not to ‘rock the boat’ and so they avoid conflict. Whether that means not challenging someone’s idea that you know is faulty, or not putting new alternatives on the table. By seeking this harmonious consensus, we end up with less creativity, less critical thinking, and overall riskier decisions. This bias is called Groupthink.

It was first described by Yale psychologist Irving Janis in the 70s. Irving wanted to understand how groups make decisions, and so he started by understanding the decision-making process in some historical failures in American foreign policy. The two most famous examples were how the American Navy ignored data about a potential Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, and how the CIA and the President convinced themselves that the Bay of Pigs would be a resounding success. Through his analysis, Irving found that groupthink was at the center of each of these failures. In each situation, an idea was formed, contradictory viewpoints were suppressed, and decisions were made with only a fraction of the potential information.

Janis identified 8 characteristics of groupthink. Think about your team, and see how much you fit these groupthink behaviors:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability – If a group has had a long string of successes, this potentially can lead them to think that their risk of failure is significantly less. Smart Kitchen had previously experienced great success with their customers, so obviously they thought they would continue this success even if they weren’t giving their customers exactly what they wanted.
  1. Unquestioned belief – Some groups have a core belief that they rally around. This can be a great thing in most situations, but it can also go too far. The issue occurs when the group starts ignoring the consequences of their actions because they believe it is worth it. For example, during the cold war, a lot of American politicians/generals had an extremely strong belief that communism should be stopped at all costs. This unfaltering belief is a factor in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and why America stayed in the Vietnam War for 20 years. Few people in power questioned if these fights were worth the costs.
  1. Rationalizing – When a group is presented information that challenges their collective held beliefs, they will immediately begin to Rationalize and distort the information. They might assume their competitors have the same restraints or limitations they have. Or they believe certain product features are critical based on anecdotal evidence even if the market research doesn’t back it up. They might even question the source of the data, and think the data is flawed. In the end, they will contort themselves and the information so that it fits their desired outcome.
  1. Stereotyping the ‘outgroup’ – Having an ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ mindset can be really motivating. Many companies select one of their competitors as ‘Enemy #1’, and use it as a rallying cry for the employees. We need to beat ‘Them’. But some this can sometimes go too far, and the group can start stereotyping anyone outside the group. When you start thinking less of people outside your group, you immediately start discrediting their ideas and are biased against their actions. This leads to a false sense of belief in your own ideas, and a closed mindset to learning from people outside the group. If you ever start thinking about your competitor’s as ‘semi-smart’, you run the risk of underestimating their abilities.
  1. Self-censorship – Groups start getting into real problems when individuals start censoring themselves when they know their idea goes against the beliefs of the group. Instead of continuing to challenge the idea, Sofie just stayed quiet, and a valid perspective was silenced.
  1. Pressure to conform – If someone does try and challenge the conventional wisdom of the group, dysfunctional groups will exert pressure on that member to fall back in line. Rupert might not have meant to be mean to Sofie, but by calling out her experiences he is pressuring her to go along with everyone else.
  1. Illusions of unanimity – I have been in many business meetings, where the leader of the meeting explicitly told everyone that silence means consent. If you aren’t commenting on the topics, then it will be assumed you support them. The reality is that silence does not necessarily mean consent. People may have self-censored their own ideas and or have felt pressure from others to conform. No one in the room may actually support the idea, but they have chosen to stay silent to keep harmony in the group.
  1. Mindguards – Finally, some group members task themselves with shielding the group from dissenting information. They believe that their own solution is the best one, so they choose to prevent conflicting data from reaching the group.

When a team falls under a Groupthink mindset, poorer decision making will follow. And unfortunately, some of these characteristics are easy to fall into, especially for high performing teams. A team that has had success after success might start to believe in their own hype and might have extra pressure for the team to remain a success. And just like that, a once high-flying team has crashed and burned.

Silence does not equal agreement - How teams fall into the trap of Groupthink - image groupthink-cartoon-2-300x193 on

What can we do about it:

Groupthink is clearly a problem, and one that we should be one guard for in our companies. Thankfully we all can play a role in helping teams make the best decisions. In addition to focusing on the content of the decisions, we should also pay attention to the decision-making process and the dialogue among the colleagues. We should be hyper-vigilant and watch out for the Groupthink characteristics, and when we see them we need to be brave enough to call them out. What good is a seat at the table if you are just going to stay silent. Being brave is one of the best ways to counteract Groupthink.

But just like in your personal health, preventative actions are far better at maintaining a healthy group dynamic. There are 4 easy actions that can help a group make unbiased decisions:

  1. Decision making roles in the team – When making important decisions, it can be very beneficial to assign specific roles among the team members. Firstly, every team member needs to act a critical evaluator. They need to feel free to challenge ideas and express their own opinions. Secondly, one team member should play the role of the ‘Devil’s Advocate’, and their job is to challenge the group’s assumptions and try to see where the idea will fail. This Devil’s Advocate role should rotate among team members for each meeting. For more guidance on decision making roles, I recommend De Bono’s classic model the 6 Thinking Hats. (
  1. Leaders should get out of the way – Leaders hold a significant amount of power over a team, and their own opinions can carry more weight than other members of the team. In order to prevent the team from just following the leader’s suggestion, it is recommended that the leader hold their own opinion back until the end. Sometimes this means the leader should not be present in the meeting while different alternatives are being discussed. No matter what, the leader should allow the team to start generating ideas before putting weight behind one idea.
  1. Seek outside opinions – One of the easiest ways to prevent Groupthink is to constantly seek opinions from outside the team. This can be done by bring in outside experts into the group meetings, or it can be the responsibility of each team member to discuss the problem with an outside expert. Either way, the team will be expanding their perspectives, and this will ensure a more diverse thought process.
  1. Examine all alternatives – A simple rule of thumb should be to always brainstorm and review all plausible alternatives before making a final decision. It may feel like a waste of time, especially if the stakes are high. But by reviewing all the alternatives you are reducing the risk of a wrong decision, and saving a lot of potentially wasted effort. I always recommend trying to identify 3 plausible solutions to a problem. Don’t accept the first thing that pops into your mind.

By taking these preventative measures you significantly reduce the risk of groupthink, and if it does occur, then it is up to you to call it out.

“Unless anyone has any objections…” – Part 2

“Cindy, you’ve been quiet. You agree with the plan… Right?”

Cindy paused for a second before speaking. “Actually, I not sold just yet. I think this is definitely one way we can respond to Cooking Tech, but I wonder if there are other options. Jesper, do we need to decide our actions this minute or can we take the rest of this meeting to explore some alternatives? In the worst case we spend the next 30 minutes discovering that the original plan was best all along. But maybe there are some better ways to respond to Cooking Tech.”

“You’re right, you’re right” sighed Jesper. “30 minutes won’t kill us. I just really dislike Cooking Tech. Sofie, you were initially against the idea. What other options do you see?”

With a big smile on her face, Sofie began to lay out her thoughts. “Instead of the microwave, I think we could speed up the launch of our smart oven, which is better suited for our current target customers. If we…”

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Highlight and Tweet it – High performing teams are sometimes the most susceptible to Groupthink. A team that has had success after success might start to believe in their own hype and might have extra pressure for the team to remain a success. Do something about it. #HR

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