Avoiding Groupthink

In the workplace, in social circles, and even in classrooms we all have a tendency to want social approval. Awareness of one’s own self and behaviors seem like an obvious thought pattern, but as groups grow larger a tendency develops for people to start identifying as a member of a group rather than as an individual.

What’s the problem? Stagnation. If you are attempting to start a small business with a group of friends, groupthink can get in the way of making intelligent decisions as nobody may feel willing to challenge the status quo of the group. On a more extreme note people can suffer from “deindividuation” – a loss of self-awareness and a loss of the fear, at times resulting in people doing stupid and terrible things. This is where lynch mobs, riots at sports games, and many cults find their origin in. Most of us don’t have to worry about the more-extreme latter, but the former can stifle creativity and diversity in how we are thinking – two qualities that are often necessary to achieve success. While we all enjoy getting along, it is often the advice, disagreements, criticism, and guidance of others that helps us create a winning concept. It’s also that same willingness to disagree that can often motivate us to make changes. Groupthink can be a stumbling block to this process.

Identifying Groupthink


Are you part of a group project right now? Has your social clique seemingly distanced itself from other friends and peers? There are many traits obvious of groupthink, they include:



“Might is right” of the groups mentality, their willingness to take (foolish) risks, and unquestioned belief of the correctness and actions of the group. This creates a sense of invulnerability, that nothing could possible go wrong. This can lead to bad investments, bad project designs, and a lack of anticipation for mistakes.



A lack of willingness to suggest ideas that may go against the grain of the group. Often we would rather please the group in agreement than show any form of dissent. Believing the group to be unanimous in their decision making creates a sense of uniformity that may in fact be false. Often groups will pressure those that disagree to the side of the majority and will “swat away” dissenting opinions. Opposition often sharpens and strengthens ideas and goals in a critical manner – without it the ideas may be flat and lifeless.



A refusal to accept that failure might occur from group decisions is a prominent example. Stereotyping the quality of other groups as inefficient or even stupid can be seen as traits. This once again creates a sense of superiority for the group and downplays any inclination or review of potential failure. This trait serves to strengthen the gaps of the other two – the group continues to isolate itself until new and different thoughts cannot pierce it.

Learning from Groupthink Problems in History

The 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion fronted by President John F. Kennedy was seen, historically, as one of the greatest American intelligence operation failures. Research has shown that many of the top CIA advisers on his board did hold serious doubt, yet most refused to announce their concern in fear of criticism. They underestimated the military ability of Cuba and over-estimated the resources of America. One dissenter was privately spoken to by the President’s brother in an attempt to persuade him to agree, eventually consenting. The end results of this mess saw the loss of many lives, a much warmer cold war thanks to Cuba’s reaction, and a great deal of embarrassment for the United States government. Over a year later, the President learned from his Bay of Pigs Invasion mistakes when handling the Cuban Missile Crisis, encouraging his people to challenge him and consider alternative situations.

That example may be on the extreme end of what happens when groupthink goes wrong, but it serves an important lesson in every day life: we need a willingness to be challenged and to challenge. In a workplace environment, it may take you being the lone dissenter and the minority on an opinion to accurately solve a problem. If you are climbing the corporate ladder, being a glad-handed yes-man might seem to initially boost your popularity among your bosses and co-workers, but having a willingness to challenge the status quo will display traits that I believe are markers of success and leadership. These include courage, directness, open-mindedness, and creativity. You boss’s idea might be great already – giving it some tactful but necessary criticism might improve it even more – and he won’t forget it.

Having said that, think about it in the context of your day-to-day interactions. When you’re having a debate, a disagreement, or some form of dissent, it’s not bad or wrong. A willingness to express your individual thoughts fosters creative and critical thinking in others, and that same willingness to accept the criticism can help evolve your idea into a success. Here’s a novel idea: get your friends to have a sit down with you about your goals, plans, and thoughts on your future and tell them to criticize and attack it with suggestions on how to improve. Not only will this stimulate a critical discussion and help you consider points that had never crossed your mind, but it may point you in a completely different direction. Don’t let your need for social acceptance to get in the way of making intelligent decisions.

Great minds think alike? I disagree. As famed British poet William Blake once wrote, “Opposition is true friendship.”