What Is Groupthink and How Can Leaders Avoid It?

Why and how groups sometimes make bad decisions, and four ways to prevent them.

Posted Oct 13, 2020

Groupthink is the term used when decision-making groups make hasty and premature decisions without doing the critical evaluation work required for making well-thought-out and good decisions. Groupthink was first studied by social psychologist Irving Janis. He wondered how smart decisionmakers, such as U.S. presidential administrations, could make bad decisions that led to catastrophes, such as John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, Richard Nixon’s Watergate decision, and the like.

What Janis noticed was that in these groups, members seemed to suspend their critical judgment and came to a premature decision in an effort for the group to try to “stay together” and maintain group cohesiveness. Often, in groupthink situations, the preferences of the leader are simply endorsed by the group members (this is the problem that occurs when a top-level leader, such as a U.S. president is surrounded by advisers who only want to please and endorse the president—the whole idea of the “yes” person).

Why and when does this groupthink occur?

Janis argues that groupthink happens in highly cohesive teams of decisionmakers who have a strong belief in their own (and the leader’s) abilities—what he called the illusion of invulnerability. High degrees of insulation from opposing viewpoints, such as making decisions “behind closed doors,” facilitates groupthink. The shared group norm of trying to stay together and avoid conflict overrides the necessary critical decision-making process of evaluating alternative courses of action. A leader who attacks advisers who disagree with the leader can also foster groupthink and bad decision making.

Once the premature (and faulty) decision is about to be made, group dynamics ensure that opposing views are suppressed (what Janis calls direct conformity pressure), and people with different views may even be ridiculed. In the end, the group can make a disastrous decision.

How can a leader prevent groupthink? Here are four ways:

1. Include group members who have diverse points of view. This prevents like-minded thinking and is one of the virtues of group member diversity and inclusion. You may also bring in expert outsiders who offer differing viewpoints and alternative strategies.

2. Ask members to play “devil’s advocates.” Appoint some individuals in the decision-making group to conduct a critical evaluation of any potential decision—asking the tough questions (“What if we…?”).

3. Remove time constraints. If possible, don’t put a time limit on the decision-making process. Allow members time to discuss all possible alternatives and courses of action.

4. Minimize your leader's influence on the decision. Groupthink can occur if the group is trying too hard to support the leader and their preferred course of action. Allowing the group to arrive at a decision without the leader present is a good strategy. Or, the leader might serve more as a facilitator in the process, rather than as a member of the decision-making team—delegating it.

Of course, not all bad decisions are caused by groupthink, but understanding how to best manage group decision-making is a key leadership skill.

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References

Janis, I.L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Riggio, R.E. (2020). Daily Leadership Development: 365 Steps to Becoming a Better Leader. Barnes & Noble Press.