<A HREF="http://ws.amazon.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&amp;MarketPlace=US&amp;ID=V20070822%2FUS%2Fdigicast-20%2F8005%2Fe60347da-2350-4d6c-855d-687e2e827f10&amp;Operation=NoScript">Amazon.com Widgets
Back to blog

Is Groupthink Destroying your Safety Talks?

groupthinkIn 2008, when Barack Obama announced his national security team he explicitly mentioned that he wanted to appoint a team that would avoid groupthink.  He said:

"I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions.  I think that's how the best decisions are made.  One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history is that you get wrapped up in groupthink.  Everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and no dissenting views.  So I will be welcoming vigourous debate inside the White House".

Why was Barack Obama concerned about groupthink?

Groupthink Definition is when decision making suffers as a cohesive group becomes insulated from dissenting viewpoints, especially when the group leader promotes a particular solution or course of action.

In the book, Crucial Decisions by Irving Janis, he discussed that work groups tend to do what they can in the interests of group harmony.  This means any dissenting views are not raised, for the fear of ruining group happiness.

However, the price that close-knit groups pay for being cohesive and always in agreement is that often the leader will favour their own views, even when their views are incorrect. 

Janis found that numerous examples of poor decision-making in the White House led to unnecessary wars and loss of life, due to the consequences of groupthink.  This was what concerned Obama (and rightly so).

Janis found that there were three main types of symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Overestimating the abilities of the group  -  An illusion of invulnerability such as excessive optimism that led to blindness of the risks.  Also, an almost unquestioning belief in the group member's abilities.
  2. Close-minded  - A tendency to justify past decisions and to stereotype opponents.
  3. Uniformity - Strong pressure to conform to the group's decisions. Anyone who criticises a viewpoint is rebuffed usually with sarcasm. Group members self-censor for fear of ridicule. It creates an illusion that everyone is on the same page.  
The major concern with groupthinking in that any organisation is prone to it, but more importantly,it can produce an inability to look at conflicting information and alternate possibilities.
When a leader puts forward an idea and the group refuses to challenge the idea, companies end up making defective decisions.
From a safety perspective, it puts companies on risky ground if their safety meetings show symptoms of groupthink.  It means that potential risks are ignored putting the lives of workers in danger.
How to Avoid Groupthink
Open, cohesive leadership enables good decision-making.
To prevent groupthink and allow best practice for group decisions, recommendations include:
  • Consider subdividing the group occasionally to allow any grievances to be discussed.
  • Assign a "devil's advocate" or allow a general dissenter to come into the group and openly express their views.  Outside safety consultants are a good resource.
  • Welcome debate. Rigoursly debate ideas in the group.  Give each member homework that encourages them to both research and defend two opposing viewpoints.  Then, ask them to make a decision on which is the preferred option and why.
  • In Japanese organisations, the lowest ranking in the room speaks first, then the next level and so on.  This means that employees never have to contradict their boss.  This is a great management technique to get a wide range of opinions and to flush out any issues at a lower level, that often get ignored.  

Whenever you have a group of people working together closely, groupthink will always be a potential issue.  It's important to be aware of it and to introduce some of the techniques above to lessen the effect.

If you need a resource to introduce these techniques into your workplace, take a look at our toolbox training DVD, which incorporates elements to reduce groupthink.

Photo Credit: "Leader" by jscreationzs