How Groupthink can turn fatal for organisations

Groupthink results in suppression of creativity, and points to a lack of freedom of expression at the workplace

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In 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger burst into flames 73 seconds into its flight, killing all of its seven members aboard. An investigation into the incident revealed that the accident had taken place because the group of engineers at NASA had been unable to speak up and point out that the O seal of the shuttle was faulty and needed to be fixed.

This is one of the most devastating examples of groupthink, a phenomenon wherein a group of people reach a conclusion without critical reasoning. The members of the group do not act with practical and common sense. Instead, they choose to act in a way that will not upset any of the other group members.

Of course, the Challenger space shuttle explosion was an extreme instance, but if groupthink can lead to such horrific consequences, it needs to be nipped in the bud so that any harm or negative repercussion can be kept at bay.

“Groupthink doesn’t allow for innovation or for expression of diverse opinions”

Ramesh Shankar S, HR leader

Groupthink can prove to be very dangerous for organisations where teams have to make critical decisions on a daily basis. It also stifles creativity and individuality.

Members who may have a problem with the group’s decision feel pressured to change their opinion so that it can align with the majoritarian order. In their pursuit of unanimous agreement, the members bypass moral quandaries and ignore future ramifications of their decision.

Groupthink is prevalent in many organisations for a variety of reasons, some of which pertain to the workplace and its leaders.

Anil Mohanty, head of people and culture, Medikabazaar, says, “Groupthink is dangerous and a sign of unhealthy work culture.”

It also happens because sometimes a few senior individuals in an organisation who feel their opinions are superior to others, create groups with people who may support them and have no problem with the solutions they offer, Mohanty explains.

This kind of influence can be oppressive and rules out any possibility of dissent.

At other times, “employees who wish to remain in the good books of their seniors, refrain from speaking their minds because they fear that their views may spoil their image,” Mohanty adds.

“Employees quickly learn to agree and push in the prescribed direction rather than think of new ideas or challenge existing practices. It seems outwardly like great teamwork but it is actually a very stifling environment”

Maneesha Jha Thakur, HR consultant

“Groupthink can be kept in check if the leaders allow for a more democratic workplace,” states Mohanty. They also need to stress the importance of constructive criticism, and bring change in the mindset of employees who think that their seniors are always correct.

Criticism can be a good thing because it opens up discussion, and creates more possibilities for creative solutions, feels Mohanty.

The fear of going against the senior grain, or employees being too enamoured by their leaders can also result in groupthink.

Maneesha Jha Thakur, HR consultant, says, “The three main reasons for groupthink are strong leadership, organisational culture and fear”.

According to Thakur, strong leadership often means that everyone remains in awe of the leader. Whatever the leader says is taken as the last word. A culture of rewarding conformity, harmony, conflict avoidance, implementation excellence and derision towards those who want to discuss new ideas is strongly embedded in groupthink. “Employees quickly learn to agree and push in the prescribed direction rather than think of new ideas or challenge existing practices. It seems outwardly like great teamwork but it is actually a very stifling environment,” admits Thakur

Another perspective on groupthink is that when the workforce has a majority of long-tenured employees and homogenous composition of talent, that is, when the organisation lacks new blood and diversity, there is a tendency to fall into a thought process of ‘this is the way we do things around here’ aided by ‘we already tried it, and failed’, Jha enunciates.

“To address groupthink, organisations need to be aware of their culture,” Jha says.

She feels organisations “need to build decision-making processes that demand individual contribution and innovation. A culture of encouraging dissent needs to be built. The leadership should not set goals and paths in a top-down fashion but follow a bottoms-up approach. Finally, organisations must train and provide exposure to long-tenured employees, add new employees with varied perspective and profiles, and chase diversity seriously.”

“Groupthink is dangerous and a sign of unhealthy work culture”

Anil Mohanty, head of people and culture, Medikabazaar

Ramesh Shankar S, HR leader, is of the opinion that “Groupthink doesn’t allow for innovation or for expression of diverse opinions”.

Shankar explains that when a group of people think that their decisions are correct, they start discouraging dissent that may arise because of difference in viewpoints. And because people are unable to think critically and come up with creative solutions, groupthink has a tendency to suppress experimentation and risk-taking as well.

It can be tackled if leaders encourage dissent and innovation, feels Shankar. “Dissenting doesn’t mean that a person is entirely opposed to the ideas presented by the other members,” he points out.

Sometimes, when people have a different opinion than the consensus of the group, they may feel that voicing their opinions could make them unpopular among others. However, it is the responsibility of the leaders to ensure that everyone’s opinions — right, wrong or absurd — are heard. “By fostering an open culture at work, encouraging debate, and giving employees the freedom to express themselves without the fear of censure, organisations can control groupthink,” Shankar suggests.

Clearly, to be able to overcome groupthink, organisations need to provide some degree of freedom of expression to their employees. They also need to bring a change in the leadership style so that group discussions don’t feel suffocating for the members because of their imposing seniors. Leaders should also ask everyone’s opinion again even if a majority view arises, and make sure that nobody is hesitant to speak what they feel. Only by creating an environment where everyone is free to express themselves can organisations curb groupthink and promote healthy and fruitful discussions.

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