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Groupthink, and management by leaving the room

I had no idea that the original research into the concept of ‘groupthink’ was inspired by what happened with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Irving Janis, a Yale psychologist who studied group cohesion, became fascinated by how a group of highly intellectual politicians and government officials could make such a poor decision. His research led to his book on the topic in which he writes about how a desire for group consensus and cohesion can dominate at the expense of people’s willingness to disagree, or to challenge that consensus and present alternative solutions.

Janis’s original definition for Groupthink was ‘a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision making groups’. He writes about how this can have significant consequences:

‘there are numerous indications pointing to the development of group norms that bolster morale at the expense of critical thinking. One of the most common norms appears to be that of remaining loyal to the group by sticking with the policies to which the group has already committed itself, even when those poilicies are obviously working out badly and have unintended consequences that disturb the conscience of each team member.

In this context a lack of opposing viewpoints or the avoidance of conflict can lead to poor decision-making. Janis believed from his research that even though some of Kennedy’s advisors individually had reason to believe that the Bay of Pigs mission would fail, they stayed silent and no one spoke against it.

JFK seemingly learned his lesson from his frustrations with the government decision making processes and took a very different approach a year later when top government officials were debating what to do about the Soviet Union trying to position nuclear tipped missiles a mere ninety miles from the Florida coast in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As well as assembling experts with a diverse set of opinions he invited outside experts into the room so that they could be questioned carefully by the group, and allowed group individuals to discuss proposed solutions with trusted members of their own teams. He even divided the larger group into smaller sub-groups and challenged them to come up with proposed solutions which could then be discussed. He deliberately absented himself from these sub-group meetings, aware that his very presence may reinforce premature consensus. As Bob Sutton says: ‘sometimes the best way for a leader to reduce undue influence is to leave the room or avoid going to meetings where his or her presence will dampen frank discussion and deep examination of facts’.

There’s definitely something in this approach. Breaking large decision-making groups down into much smaller groups (and even individuals) helps encourage a wider diversity of thinking and ideas. When brainstorming solutions the common approach is to bring a large group together to throw out ideas, yet as psychologists Diehl and Stroebe wrote in 1991:

“Brainstorming groups produce more ideas than an individual but fewer and poorer quality ideas than from individuals working separately. In other words, brainstorms dilute the sum of individual efforts.”

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has shown that multiple studies conducted over a number of decades have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. So a much better approach for coming up with good ideas is to deliberately allow individuals (or small groups) to consider solutions first, and then bring those ideas back into the wider group. Leaders that are self-aware enough to absent themselves from these discussions at the right moments to avoid stifling open discussion can further help to avoid groupthink. To quote Bob Sutton, sometimes the best management is no management at all.

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