People generally take comfort in consensus: “There is safety in numbers.”
But there are times when consensus can be lethal.
Several decades ago, leaders in business and social science began to notice that co-workers sometimes ignored certain courses of action to maintain a sense of harmony in their organization — a phenomenon known as "groupthink."
Groupthink can mean:
Poor group decision-making.
Excessive optimism about the group or organization.
Censorship of members with differing views.
Ignoring information that conflicts with the group’s conclusions.
The inability to evaluate hazards and weaknesses of the chosen course of action.
Bias in researching options.
Failure to fully evaluate plan objectives.
Belief that the group’s intellect and ability is superior to everyone else.
Groupthink can be caused several factors, loyalty among them. While loyalty is almost always a virtue, excessive loyalty is not when it comes to making decisions. Many times employees feel obligated, out of sense of loyalty, to support certain plans and policies even if they have their own doubts.
Even past success can cause groupthink by creating an atmosphere and the assumption that an organization or its leadership is always right because they have been right in the past.
Isolation from facts or other opinions can lead to groupthink. That is what occurred a century ago on the Titanic. Capt. Edward Smith and White Star Line Managing Director Bruce Ismay falsely believed the company’s press releases that the Titanic was unsinkable. The officers, crew and even the passengers shared Ismay and Smith’s confidence in the invincible nature of the ship.
The night the Titanic sank, other nearby ships had either stopped or greatly slowed their speed because of the numerous icebergs. But the Titanic rushed forward at breakneck speed in an attempt to get to New York City ahead of schedule.
On the bridge of the Titanic, the captain and other officers ignored numerous ice warnings. There was not even a pair of binoculars in the ship’s crow’s nest, which could have been used to spot the iceberg well before the Titanic struck it.
Groupthink also likely prevented the Titanic from having sufficient lifeboats aboard. The ship’s owners felt the boats were not needed and the additional boats would hamper the view of passengers.
This groupthink spread to the passengers and many failed to board lifeboats simply because they believed the ship was unsinkable.
This misplaced optimism cost many lives.
Groupthink can be prevented by:
Making an organizational commitment to consider all possible options.
Appointing a committee member to act as a “referee” or a “devil’s advocate” to ensure all possibilities are fully considered before a decision is reached.
Using multiple committees to consider solutions to the same problem.
Using a third-party consultant to suggest a course of action.
Assigning each member of a committee the task to comment critically on all proposed plans of action.
The consequences of groupthink can be tragic. It robs an organization of its most valuable asset — ideas and intellectual ability. The good news is this problem can be eliminated.
Dan Cravens is a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor in Pocatello, Idaho, and is currently a doctoral candidate in business administration at Argosy University in Draper.