So you know the basics of running a meeting but worry about when group dynamics get complicated? In this blog, I will address one possible and unfortunately, quite frequent complication: the phenomena of “Groupthink”, identified by Irving Janis.
Janis found a frightening tendency, on the part of groups under pressure, to exhibit a culture of conformity. He wondered why top leaders who made critical decisions around the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the escalation of the Vietnam War and more recently, the Challenger’s ”O” rings, would inhibit dissent.
So what does Groupthink look like in action?
- Team members all agree when you are pretty sure that they don’t really.
- They look like they want to speak but then choose not to.
- And, just when one person looks ready to share his/her concerns, s/he stops upon seeing a host of clear, non-verbal signals from teammates looking at their watches, tapping their feet, shaking their heads.
Why you ask would Groupthink occur during critical decision-making?
(1) The boss intimidates his/her staff, giving them the message that dissent is not kosher
(2) Team members don’t want to look incompetent and figure if no one else disagrees but them, they must be wrong;
(3) There is a “felt” sense of pervasive pressure in the group/organizational culture that suggests “Thou shalt not disagree.”
Add time pressure and Groupthink only gets stronger.
So you ask, how the heck do you handle this one as a faciliator, leader or even a team member? (And it is your responsibility as teammember to speak up during Groupthink, even if no one else does). You can ask:
- If this decision does not work, what are its possible consequences?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of this decision?
- What are potential obstacles implementing our decision?
- Are there other possible solutions for us to consider?
- What are at least two other strategies we could employ instead?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses?
- Who, outside our group, could take a look at our decision from a different perspective?
- If we were the client, what weaknesses would we find in this solution?
- What suggestions might a competitor make? a board member?
While asking these questions may move the group out of Groupthink, if conformity is strong, it may just result in zero response. Here are some methodologies for ensuring a discussion of alternatives:
1. Create a debate with 2 people “for” and 2 “against” the decision at which the group has arrived (no matter one’s real view)
2. Have someone play the role of “devil’s advocate.”
3. Break the group up into several small groups and ask each group to come up with 2 other strategies or, 2 reasons why the original strategy may not be viable.
4. Bring in a panel of experts with different views to address viable solutions.
All of these methodologies have one constant — you must break up the group’s boundaries so that it becomes safer to disagree. If you structure the task as one in which people must come up with alternatives or obstacles or play the role of “devil’s advocate,” team members will feel far safer doing so.
On important decisions that are potentially life threatening, clearly it is worth the time and energy to surmount Groupthink. And not a difficult task once these methods are employed.