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Groupthink is the condition in which individuals set aside their beliefs and concerns to conform to group opinion. This is most commonly done because people value the cohesion of the group more than the risk of a poor outcome.

While the term was first coined by William H. Whyte in Fortune magazine in 1952, a Yale psychologist, Irving Janis, did much of the early work on the theory.

In groupthink, the consensus opinion of the group stifles open communication, and the group, as a whole, travels down a path that may not be in its best interests.

Groupthink stems from a variety of sources, including:

  • Tribal knowledge
  • ‘The way we have always done it’
  • Fear of being different
  • Danger of reprisals
  • Heavy-handed leadership
  • Clique mentalities
  • Feelings of dominance
  • Lack of diversity in thought
  • Insulated or compartmentalized groups

A common example of this comes in the development of a new product. Imagine an engineer or marketer in a company comes up with an idea, and the president really likes it. In order to please him or her, people go along with the idea, even if they don’t truly agree with it. They credit supporting evidence with more weight than it deserves, and dismiss contradictory evidence. As the project builds momentum, people, despite their real thoughts, go along with the plan so they don’t stand apart from the group. In many case, people actually come to believe what the group thinks. The start to ‘Drink the Kool-Aid.’

There are obvious dangers here. Without thorough and impartial analysis, it is easy to head down the wrong path, costing substantial amounts of time, money, and reputation.

Types of Groupthink

Groupthink manifests in two main ways. The first is intentional. Individuals simply take the path of least resistance, and ‘go with the flow.’ They recognize that they don’t really agree with the course, but perform an internal cost-benefit analysis. When the costs of dissention are higher than the benefits of getting along, they filter what they say.

The second type of groupthink is unintentional. This is most commonly the result of a corporate culture that promotes certain beliefs. The most common manifestation of this form of groupthink is the feeling of superiority and the subsequent dismissal of competition. The US car industry in the 1970’s and 80’s felt their products were vastly superior to Japanese imports. That feeling likely led them to choose their behaviors differently than they would have if they had viewed the overseas manufacturers as a more serious threat.

This unintentional form is more difficult to break because people don’t recognize the groupthink behaviors in themselves. In the first form, when the barrier is removed, people will be more likely to voice their true opinion.

Warning Signs of Groupthink

There are several warning signs to groupthink.

  1. Meetings tend to go extremely smoothly, with little dissenting opinion. The negatives that are expressed are really just positives in disguise (how will we be able to produce so many units with our limited space available?).
  2. Leaders ask loaded questions—‘What are some of the other great features of this product?
  3. Labeling of those who have differing opinions (troublemaker, pessimistic, etc.).
  4. Dismissal of opposing thoughts. This might happen, for example, when people are compiling brainstorming lists, and contradictory ideas are either lumped together, or left off.
  5. Constant referral to how great the company has done in the past, or references to the success of unrelated issues.
  6. Downplaying the abilities of competitors.

Resolving Groupthink

Corporate groupthink, especially that which involves senior leadership, is very difficult to break. Fixing widespread groupthink likely will only start with executive recognition of the problem, and their subsequent commitment to significant changes in how the company operates.

Far more manageable, though, is dealing with groupthink in continuous improvement projects. One of the most frequent situations of groupthink involves denial of a problem or of a need for improvement (why do we need to cut costs more—we just finished another record quarter?).

Another is a consensus about a proposed solution before any real root cause analysis is completed (all we need to do is get online ordering and our sales will go up).

Individuals, especially those in continuous improvement leadership role, can often address these situations on their own. Here are a few suggestions on how to break groupthink mentalities:

  1. Use anonymity when appropriate. People are more likely to give dissenting opinions when they don’t fear reprisals or being labeled as an outcast.
  2. Stack the deck. Load the team with people that you know will give their true thoughts.
  3. Bring in outsiders. Let someone who has not been involved in the decision making process review what the team has come up with. Throw in a few alternatives and don’t tell the outsider which way the team is leaning.

If you find yourself biting your tongue or limiting your ideas, you may be succumbing to groupthink. You will have to walk a fine line in dealing with this issue on your own, as the root cause likely stems from the leadership style of your boss.

Find a trusted advocate that you can talk to—a mentor or HR rep, for example. Let them know of your concerns.

If they can’t help you, protect yourself from reprisals, but find the ‘seams’ where you can still make improvements without rocking the boat too much. Improvements tend to trump leadership style. When a boss sees progress, they try to figure out what is happening, and replicate that throughout the organization. If it just happens that your progress was based on an effective use of the PDCA cycle rather than gut-feel group decision making, you may start a cultural shift.

Getting the most out of a team requires free and open communication of ideas. Bring in an outsider to assess your leadership style, and let you know if you tend to drive people towards groupthink. Recognition is the first line of defense.

  • Groupthink creates significant waste in a company by prioritizing popular ideas over the best ideas.
  • Groupthink is a psychological occurrence with many possible cause. Understanding the cultural norms of the organization will help identify the reasons groupthink is occurring.

  1. Add a groupthink review step into your meeting planning process.
  2. Ask a mentor to sit in on a few meetings that you lead and see if they recognize the signs of groupthink. This will work best when the mentor is not in your direct chain of command.
  3. Try using anonymity to see if there are more dissenting ideas when people’s identities are veiled. If so, it is a sign that groupthink might be prevalent.


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