How to fight group-think

by eskokilpi

The mainstream approach to groups and teamwork underlines the need for consensus and cohesion. It is believed that members of an organization should commit themselves to its policies and chosen direction. Many writers claim that people should share the same vision, be positive and work harmoniously together. Seeking consensus often becomes so dominant in a group that its members tend to leave out of any alternative thinking. The symptoms of what is called group-think arise when people are not motivated to judge or criticize views and assumptions. People are positive and seek harmony on issues with no conflict to spoil the “we” atmosphere.

Often the more cohesive the group, the greater the inner compulsion on the part of the group members to avoid creating a disturbance. This often leads to people believing in the soundness of whatever proposals are promoted by the leader, or by the majority present. The danger is not so much that each individual will fail to reveal ideas that conflict with what the others propose, but that he will think that the proposal is a good one, without attempting to carry out any critical study of the possible alternatives. When this kind of group-think becomes dominant, there is often a considerable suppression of deviant or creative thinking. But it takes the form of each person deciding that his differing thoughts are not relevant and should be set aside.

Evidence of the group-think symptom is that things are left unsaid.

James C Thomson was a historian who studied the Vietnam War through observing decision making in the US State Department and at the White House during the war. He writes about the victims of group-think ignoring warnings. People collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount any negative news and feedback that, taken seriously, might lead the group members to reconsider their assumptions, as they recommit themselves to past decisions. Thomson’s findings came into my mind as last Wednesday I listened to Anssi Vanjoki defending Nokia’s past strategic decisions – no mistakes have been made!

Thomson writes about the fall of 1964. Just before the bombing of North Vietnam began, some of the policymakers predicted that six weeks of air strikes would force the North Vietnamese to seek peace talks. When someone asked: “What if they don’t?” the answer was that “Another four weeks would certainly do the trick!” The assumptions behind the decisions were never questioned.

What is being discussed in groups is often unclear. The lack of clarity is the very reason for having the conversation. We come to know what we are talking about as the conversation develops over time, if it develops. Communication is not one person saying something and others listening in order to understand what is being said, and thus formulating a joint decision. Whatever people do in groups is accomplished in communication, which always has a thematic pattern. The thematic patterns are, in turn, iterated over time as repetition, group-think or creativity. The demand that (management) group meetings are carefully planned and agenda-based may actually kill the possibility of any new meaning to emerge.

A group’s ritualistic adherence to meeting procedures and idealized rules of behaviour may create a false justification of the decisions made.

Research on complexity and creativity has shown the importance of diversity. If members join a group and have nothing in common at all, obviously, joint action will be impossible. But perhaps the bigger challenge today is if they conform too much in the name of group cohesion and thus block the emergence of the new. Organizations have the capacity to change only when they are characterized by diversity and deviance.

What is needed in groups, is paradoxically, conformity and deviance at the same time.


Thank you James C Thomson, Irving L Janis, Clay Shirky and Patricia Shaw

(Mårten Mickos blogs about this topic in Finnish)

More on group-think