Leadership Letters
Leadership Letters

Writings on Christian leadership and leader development by Malcolm Webber

December 2019
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Leadership Letters

Groupthink Can Kill Your Team! Here’s How You Treat It

Malcolm WebberMalcolm Webber

“Groupthink” is a well-documented phenomenon that teams must vigilantly avoid. It occurs when a group of people strives to minimize conflict at the expense of critical analysis and evaluation. Groupthink happens when the members of a team try so hard to get along that they never disagree, which results in a stagnation of ideas.

Unfortunately, a team mired in groupthink rarely recognizes its problem. Some of the signs of the presence of groupthink are:

  1. Team members unquestioningly agree with their leader. Whenever group members believe in the infallibility of the leader (although this will rarely be stated overtly), the team is on dangerous ground.
  2. Intolerance is shown toward members who do not agree with the group, labeling them trouble-makers simply because their opinions differ.
  3. The team has a strong sense of invulnerability. This can be an illusion created when team members do not realistically assess the obstacles ahead of them.
  4. The team holds an unfavorable, stereotyped view of outsiders.
  5. Critics, opponents and competitors are ridiculed and not given serious consideration.
  6. Due to the social pressure within the group, it is very difficult for team members to express disagreements or even doubts. This helps to maintain the illusion of internal harmony.
  7. Team members are discouraged from looking outside the group for ideas and information.
  8. Facts that are inconsistent with the preferred narrative are prevented from being seriously considered or are discounted through rationalization.
  9. If ethical issues are involved in the decision, the team’s illusion of moral superiority makes it easy to justify a course of action that would normally be considered unethical.

Some ways that a team can protect itself from groupthink include:

  1. Ask someone from outside the team to sit in on one of your meetings. Often an outsider to the team can identify unproductive behavior more readily than team members or the team leader can.
  2. Ask a group member to deliberately play the role of “intentional adversary.” After the team has prepares its plan regarding a certain issue, the intentional adversary then examines its details, looking for weaknesses such as unbiblical or unethical thinking, faulty logic, doubtful inferences, questionable assumptions, overlooked information, biased forecasts, misinterpreted data, and potential negative ramifications. He then prepares a formal critique and presents it to the whole team. The team then considers whether their plan can be revised to deal with the criticisms in a satisfactory manner. If not, they can try to generate additional solutions or postpone the decision.
  3. Encourage critical, independent thinking.
  4. Evaluate the quality of every idea on its own merits instead of agreeing due to the status or credibility of the person making the suggestion.
  5. Cultivate an atmosphere in which co-workers are expected to disagree if they see a potential problem.
  6. Hold a second chance meeting for momentous or controversial decisions after the group reaches a preliminary consensus. This “second chance meeting” allows co-workers time to reconsider the evidence and express any lingering doubts before making a final decision.

Too little constructive disagreement lulls a team into deadly complacency. Teams must diligently guard against groupthink – particularly in cultures that place a high value on group unity and harmony.

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