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What Is the Problem with Groupthink?

The term groupthink is usually associated with social psychologist Irving Janis who conducted extensive research on group dynamics and groupthink. Janis published his findings in his 1972 case study Victims of Groupthink, citing the Bay of Pigs disaster (America’s failed invasion of Cuba in 1961) and the Pearl Harbor tragedy of 1941 as his two main case studies.

Long before Janis’s research, however, sociologist and writer William A. Whyte, Jr. actually coined the term in 1952. Whyte referred to groupthink as “rationalized conformity”—a way of thinking that focuses on group values as not only being expedient but also being right and good.

The research conducted by Janis in later years helped refine and reformulate his own model of and the meaning of groupthink.

What is groupthink, and what are its consequences?

Groupthink’s meaning today refers to that psychological phenomenon where people in a group prioritize consensus and conformity to maintain group cohesiveness. People practice groupthink at the expense of their personal beliefs or opinions.

Rather than voicing out their perspective, which they deem different or even dissenting, they decide to adopt the opinion of the group to avoid conflict and maintain the status quo. In simple terms, groupthink has been defined as an “agreement at any cost mentality.”

Because of the apparent blind obedience groupthink requires, it can have dire consequences on organizations where it is practiced and in business decisions.

Groupthink can give members a false sense of security and overconfidence in the choices they and their leaders make. It also discourages individualism and innovative, independent thinking and encourages complacency.

At worst, groupthink causes unethical behaviour and can lead to the following problems:

  • Inability to foresee and forestall possibly negative outcomes

  • Curtailment of opposing or dissenting opinions

  • Not acknowledging crucial data

  • Inability to formulate alternative solutions

  • Unwillingness to entertain new information, ideas or concepts

How does groupthink affect behaviour?

On the surface, groupthink may not all seem bad. At best, it helps groups make swift decisions because everyone ends up adopting the same opinion or agreeing to a certain course of action.

But based on the consequences of groupthink, adopting this way of thinking discourages or even suppresses the individual for the sake of the group. In cases where in a group one or more people may have different opinions about a decision being made, however, those are set aside for the sake of conformity, keeping the peace and ensuring group cohesion.

Aside from the case studies cited by Janis in his groupthink research, other examples he studied in relation to the disastrous consequences of groupthink include the Vietnam War under the watch of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nazi Germany’s decision to invade the Soviet Union.

More recent examples of how groupthink can lead to problems of catastrophic proportions is what happened to the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. In this case, the national and political pressures on the mission led to the fatal launch, even when potential risks to the safety of the space shuttle were identified beforehand. Another controversial topic of groupthink would be the fear induced mask mandates and lockdown responses to COVID-19 that persist even after studies continue to demonstrate that they don't limit spread and protect people, but rather are detrimental to economies, small businesses, mental health, physical health and the social development of the majority of people in those mandate heavy regions.

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What is an example of groupthink in the workplace?

Groupthink bias examples are quite common in the workplace.

After all, people continue to value teamwork and cooperation—which, to a certain extent, can help direct group efforts and accomplish results faster.

However, with groupthink, some form of disaster usually looms on the horizon.

An example of groupthink in the workplace includes not entertaining certain groups of applicants—however qualified they may be—based on their ethnicity, age, gender or some other physical attribute. This practice leads to a lack of diversity in the workplace.

Unilateral decision-making and lack of accountability among leaders, as in the case of the decline and downfall of Swissair, are a sign of groupthink in a corporate setting.

Other examples of groupthink on a larger scale include making decisions based on other people’s acceptance of what a person is selling. This is precisely what happened with Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos and how she duped intellectuals, investors and the public.

Even the global financial crisis of 2008 may be attributed to groupthink. People invested borrowed money in housing without thinking of the possibility of a crash—all because everyone else was doing it.

What are the five common characteristics leading to groupthink?

While groupthink does exist and may continue to persist, you can guard yourself and your organization against it. Just be on the lookout for the following common characteristics that lead to groupthink:

  • The use of direct pressure by the status quo on those who are perceived as questioners or dissenters

  • A false sense of unanimity, where the lack of questions or different opinions is viewed as a sign that everyone is in agreement

  • Ignoring and rationalizing against data or information that doesn’t support group decisions

  • Stereotyping, which leads to an “us versus them” mentality and negative biases against those who dare to ask questions or speak up against group decisions

  • Self-censorship arising from individuals doubting their own thoughts and opinions for the sake of the group

When you know the signs of groupthink, it becomes easier to avoid them and come up with groupthink solutions, such as:

  • Being open to questions and criticism or diverse perspectives

  • Rewarding innovative or creative thinking

  • Checking in on employees individually—especially the quiet ones

  • Adopting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies

  • Providing employees with learning and career development opportunities

Let’s tackle groupthink together!

Groupthink has no place in progressive organizations keen on developing or maintaining a diverse, inclusive workforce, nor in democratic countries that build their societies on charters of rights and freedoms for all.

Tough Convos is here to help you formulate and implement DEI initiatives based on rational, progressive and equitable outcomes, not fads, trends nor 'wokeism'.

Book a call with us today!


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