Monday, January 30, 2012

Groups, Thinking and Groupthinking

We Need Time Alone and Time Together to Be Effective
Several former students from my Strategic Communication class at NYU sent me an article from The New York Times recently. (I already read it but remain so appreciative that they thought of me.) “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” written by Susan Cain, caught their eyes because we had a deep discussion about the groupthink phenomenon. Unfortunately, the article didn’t capture the real essence of groupthink nor did it mention who coined the term.

Groupthink is not just thinking in groups. Dr. Irving L. Janis, as a research psychologist at Yale in 1971, said it’s “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

While it’s important for teams to feel and be cohesive, it’s our mutual responsibility to confront bad or negative behaviors. Too often, team members try to please one another; they don’t want to “rock the boat.” What’s most important to them is to be perceived as team players and to retain their membership or standing in the group. But groups that can’t challenge themselves can seriously threaten (and in some cases destroy) the groups’ very goals and principles. (The examples are too numerous to mention but one of the most extensively studied were the groupthink decisions that led to the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and her crew.)

Janus identified eight characteristics of groupthink:
  • Illusion of Invulnerability: A belief that any decision reached will be successful. (How can we lose? We’re too big, too important to fail.)
  • Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group: A belief in the righteousness of the decision. (God is on our side!)
  • Rationalization: Objections are overshadowed by perceived negative reactions. (No one will notice or care. It’ll work because it’s always worked.)
  • Stereotypes of Out-Groups: Falsely characterizing another group. (It’s the media that’s giving us a bad name!)
  • Self-Censorship: What we commit upon ourselves in the guise of group loyalty, team spirit or adherence to company policy. (I should have said something, but…)
  •  Direct Pressure: Dissent is presumed to be disloyal or counter to the group’s interests. (If you’re not with us, you’re against us.)
  •  Mindguards: Data, facts, opinions kept deliberately away from the group. (Oh well, you already made up your mind anyway.)
  •  Illusion of Unanimity: As drawbacks are downplayed and the inevitability of the decision is reinforced, the group coalesces around the decision. (We have to make this happen, we have no choice – so we’re good to go, right?)
In her NYT article, Ms. Cain posits that we’re crushing creativity by teaching in classroom “pods” (where desks are arranged together) and working in open-plan offices. (Yes, it is nice to be able to close the door every now and then.) When referring to brainstorming new ideas she says, “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” And quoting Steve Wozniak of Apple fame: “Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Of course we need time and solitude to think. That's a "no brainer." (I couldn't resist.) I’m a big advocate of carving out some amount of time every day to ponder. More connections form in our brains when we think habitually. (More on this in the previous article, "A Creative New Year's Resolution.) So, generating ideas on your own is great. I’m all for it. But ideation, like just about everything else in life, requires balance. In this case, it's balancing time alone and time together. Refining and enhancing ideas through collaboration and gaining the buy-in of the group are essential elements in any organization and in any business. Indeed, the team concept isn’t at fault; it’s the team dynamic that can lead to trouble.

Janus offers us some help here, too, with some methods to avoid the effects of groupthink: 
  • Keep an Open Climate: Keep the discussion free of judgmental attitudes and accept divergent thinking.
  • Avoid the Isolation of the Group: Frame the issue/problem from different points of view; bring in outside opinion/experts.
  • Allow Critical Evaluation: Grant power to assail the “sacred cows” and challenge areas outside one’s expertise.
  • Avoid Being Too Directive: Allow the group it’s own space – leaders don’t need to be present for every meeting.
Ms. Cain concludes by acknowledging that collaboration is crucial, at least in some spheres. “The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.” My belief is that “many other fields” is more likely most, if not all of them.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

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