6 Ways to Avoid Groupthink

Written By: Anita Bruzzese
October 16, 2015
5 min read

Many companies actively recruit the friends of employees, believing such relationships lead to better results since it will make employees happier to be working with buddies. But research shows that such a strategy may backfire, which is why leaders need to tread carefully.

It’s much more fun – not to mention a heck of a lot less stressful – to get along with your colleagues at work. It’s even better when you’re friends with co-workers, because who doesn’t want to work with friends, right?

Well, according to a recent study, your company’s bottom line may not like these workplace friendships. Specifically, a study by Ryerson University published in the European Management Journal finds that despite past beliefs that “group cohesion” can only help a team’s performance, it can have a downside: groupthink.

If you’re not familiar with the term, groupthink is a term coined by research psychologist Irving Janis, and is often tied to poor decisions that arise out of teams or groups. The idea is that when ideas aren’t challenged – just simply embraced without debate – then it leads to a less-desirable outcome.

Sean Wise, professor of entrepreneurship at Ryerson, conducted a study that analyzed email communications for 187 teams from one company. Using digital data collection and social network analysis software, Wise found that while social connections boosted a team’s performance at first, too much cohesion eventually led to a diminished performance.

Being so friendly, he found, eventually hurt the team’s performance.

Ben Dattner, an industrial and organizational psychologist and adjunct professor at New York University, says that leaders may find groupthink leads to decisions that can have disastrous outcomes.

For example, President Kennedy’s subordinates used groupthink to jump to the conclusion that the U.S. should invade Cuba in 1961, because they knew it was what he wanted. After the invasion failed, Kennedy tasked his younger brother, Robert, to vigorously vet any decisions that were being considered by the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.

How can organizations and leaders ensure that teams get along – but don’t lapse into groupthink? Here are some tips from experts:

  1. Plan for it. Art Petty, founder and principal of the Art Petty Group, says any risk plan should include a way to monitor and reduce emerging groupthink. It doesn’t mean you think the group will fail – but that it’s preferable to tackle the problem head on rather than ignore it.
  2. Encourage debate. As Dattner mentions, Kennedy learned that getting his own way with no debate might feel good for a short time – but the end result can be terrible. Leaders need to speak up and let team members know why it’s so important that ideas and opinions be challenged. “Within businesses and governments, happy talk is common, but it can be countered with some version of, ‘Now tell me something I need to know, even if I don’t want to hear it,’” adviseCass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie, authors of “Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter.”
  3. Look for different personalities. Dr. Meredith Belbin contends there needs to be at least eight team members of various personalities, such as the unorthodox, creative problem solver; the person who thrives on pressure; and the colleague who judges options objectively. Look for those who have different styles of thinking and communicating.
  4. Acknowledge biases in data. Leaders may believe they eliminate groupthink by relying on data. But if “analysts cherry-pick information to suit managers’ expectations, managers will be reassured about their decisions and see no need to improve them. And once misleading insights are data-approved, they are even harder to challenge,” note Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth in Harvard Business Review. Leaders need to make sure they don’t reveal their “hope and dreams” to data scientists who are hired to collect and mine information, they advise.
  5. Reach out. Invite people from other departments, especially those who will be affected by decisions being made. Even if they can’t attend the meeting, reach out to others within the organization to get their feedback – they won’t be influenced by the group’s ideas and may be more willing to offer independent opinions and ideas.
  6. Know that speed can kill. It may be a relief if a decision is reached quickly, but don’t embrace it too quickly. Was there real debate? Did everyone offer an opinion, or did a few influencers appear to lead the group decision? If a leader believes there wasn’t enough debate, delay a decision and ask that more research be done.

Finally, remember that while collaboration is highly promoted in workplaces today, sometimes leaders need to back off so that it doesn’t lead to groupthink and less-creative ideas.

As Steven Wozniak notes in his book, ‘iWoz”: “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

If leaders harness the creativity of someone like Wozniak and channel it into more diverse collaborative efforts, then it may lead to a much better bottom-line – whether the team is friendly with one another or not.

Creating opportunities with the right technology

In this article, we talked about ways to avoid groupthink, and how friendships can contribute to less desirable outcomes. In addition to channeling creativity into more diverse collaborative efforts, we can’t forget about how technology plays a role in diminishing groupthink. When data and information are readily available in a central place, it’s less likely that workplace friendships will influence decision-making. It’s difficult to argue with cold, hard, real-time data. If empowering yourself, your team, or your entire workforce to solve their own problems with the right technology sounds good to you, click here to learn more about Quickbase.

Anita Bruzzese
Written By: Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today Show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, and Her website,, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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