Quick read

Breaking the mould

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Groupthink can have destructive consequences. It costs businesses billions of pounds because of poor decision-making and limited creativity, particularly in executive teams.

Groupthink means that people prefer to reach consensus and minimise conflict, rather than challenge each other to reach the best decision. It typically develops when a group is close-knit, with a lack of diversity among its members and with decision-making processes that lack rigour and objectivity. And crucially it stems from leadership that is either too strong, demanding compliance, or too weak, shying away from difficult conversations. Non-hierarchical, flat organisations with self-managed teams can also be prone to Groupthink because they diffuse leadership and often lack a formal mechanism for achieving impartiality.

Dissenting views are both necessary and desirable within teams. They cultivate a culture of contribution and challenge.

How can you spot Groupthink?

The signs of Groupthink should be clear: little conflict between team members, overly harmonious meetings, little creativity, irrational decision-making or indecision, disengaged group members and in some cases, a drift toward unethical behaviour.

And what can be done?

Groupthink is not a new concept, but it continues to bedevil many organisations. Where it does exist, you have to get buy-in from the senior team that it is a problem. That may be easier if the issue is positioned as a lack of innovation or as a need to make better decisions, thus addressing it as a commercial problem.

Once the problem has been accepted you as a leader must help the group value and adopt more actively participative and challenging leadership styles. You should:

  • Avoid expressing your opinions, preferences and expectations up front as this has a distorting influence on any discussion
  • Encourage the sharing of information from all group members (Research has found that the information that has been seen by the most group members will dominate any discussion.)
  • Create an environment in which team members are encouraged to participate, contribute and challenge others without feeling that they will be ridiculed
  • Foster positive attitudes towards constructive conflict, reminding group members that the diversity of views it brings out will yield better ideas and decisions
  • Encourage critical evaluation of information by all group members. This is particularly useful with new or more junior members of the group, allowing them to understand people’s thinking
  • Praise those that challenge. Group norms encouraging deviance and critical thinking will have a positive impact on quality of decisions made

Give direction to constructive conflict by creating common goals (i.e. business objectives) for the group, to emphasise their shared stake in the business.

And you may need to reshape the organisational context – structures, management processes, incentives, communication – to enable the new behaviours you are looking for.

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