6 Guardrails Against GroupThink for Smarter Startup Decision Makingby@vinitabansal

6 Guardrails Against GroupThink for Smarter Startup Decision Making

by Vinita BansalAugust 6th, 2020
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Groupthink is a mental paradigm that reflects a group’s thinking which in turn guides their actions and beliefs. It shows itself when conformity curbs individualism, an agreement is given more importance than disagreement, popularity is deemed more relevant than the need for validation, and familiarity suppresses the desire to think rationally and explore alternatives. The group gives in their silent nod to the most popular and agreeable solution without mustering up the courage to speak their mind. Without an environment that encourages fresh perspectives, constructive conflict with a desire to learn new information, and a clear process for making decisions.
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When you are part of a group, do you speak up and voice your opinion or avoid criticism and choose a path of less conflicts. When popularity takes priority over individual responsibility, people develop a tendency to conform to ideas and beliefs that lead to conservative thinking, ignore potential signs of failure, and make decisions with incomplete and biased information leading to groupthink. 

When such behaviour becomes part of an organisation's culture, it gives rise to collective blindness to unethical ways, regressive thinking that ignores the future demands of your business and a propensity to ignore truth especially if it requires taking a hard stance.  

Without the environment that encourages fresh perspectives, constructive conflict with a desire to learn new information, and a clear process for making decisions, it’s easy to succumb to groupthink where herd mentality drives decisions instead of utilising the collective power of group intelligence. 

Whether groupthink is part of your organisation’s culture or reflects in specific pockets, it’s important to study the unique dynamics of your work environment that gives rise to such a mindset. Understanding the distinctive characteristics of groupthink will enable you to identify specific behaviours in your team or organisation that causes groupthink intentionally or unintentionally.  

Let’s deep dive into the 4 key symptoms of groupthink. 

What causes groupthink?

Groupthink is a mental paradigm that reflects a group’s thinking which in turn guides their actions and beliefs. It shows itself when conformity curbs individualism, an agreement is given more importance than disagreement, popularity is deemed more relevant than the need for validation, and familiarity suppresses the desire to think rationally and explore alternatives. 

4 common behaviours that cause groupthink are:

1. Avoiding conflicts 

People with a fixed mindset believe that their ideas define their identities. They do not speak up with the fear that a disagreement can be a question on their intelligence. In an attempt to avoid criticism and prove their smartness, they nod in agreement to others' judgement even though they may not believe in it.

For leaders and managers in positions of power, a fixed mindset can make them ignore any information that undermines their authority leading to blind spots. When people notice this behaviour, they learn to conform to other’s ideas with a view that any disagreement might upset them. 

When avoiding conflict becomes the norm as opposed to engaging in constructive disagreements, the information required to make an effective decision remains hidden. The group gives in their silent nod to the most popular and agreeable solution without mustering up the courage to speak their mind.

As Peter Drucker mentions in his book The Effective Executive

The effective decision does not, as so many texts on decision-making proclaim, flow from a consensus on the facts. The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of the serious consideration of competing alternatives

2. Strong sense of righteousness

Our biases have supreme control over how we act and make decisions. While there are many biases that dictate our behaviour at any given time, the two most profound biases that gave way to groupthink are confirmation bias and consensus bias. 

When we selectively choose data or hear arguments that align with our belief system and ignore any evidence that refutes our belief, our confirmation bias is in action. Most of the people are unaware of the power of this bias and how it affects their decision making. In a group setting, the leader of the group may unknowingly support arguments and data points that are in line with their own solutions while disregarding anything that challenges it.

Consensus bias has a false consensus assumption at its root. It makes people believe that their decision is the best given the current circumstances and that the group is already in alignment with their decision. Without an opportunity to dispute and explore alternatives, everyone agrees to the idea with the belief that everyone else is already aligned to it. 

These biases stem from an underlying belief in the righteousness of everything we say and do. Without an open mindset to recognise these biases and make a conscious effort to learn different viewpoints, any decision made with this constricted view will be limited in the impact it can generate.  

When righteousness becomes the basis for making decisions as opposed to the courage to face reality, creative thinking takes a backseat and the group gives in to the biased decision. 

3. Lack of psychological safety

In an environment where mistakes are punished, vulnerability is considered a weakness, there’s a tendency to blame and failures are examined as lack of ability instead of a means to learn and grow, people withdraw from speaking their mind and start playing safe.

Instead of seeking new opportunities and new ways of doing things, they resort to old methods. When decisions are rooted in fear instead of the courage to take risks, people ignore clear signs of failure that require them to think ahead and plan for the future effectiveness of their work. 

Without psychological safety in which people feel safe to voice opinions and do not fear the consequences of their actions, none of the strategy and tactics employed by the organisation can make them successful in the long run. 

Groupthink is clearly visible in such an environment since people feel it’s safer to keep quiet than to share ideas. 

4. Extreme logical thinking that kills emotional guidance 

When people relate logical thinking to intelligence and emotions as a sign of weakness, they tend to gravitate towards stories that are backed by data while ignoring the subtle cues that are trying to tell them a different story. 

Multiple studies show that emotions play a critical role in decision making. Used right, they can be an impactful tool to guide behaviour and understand how we feel about the decision. It does not mean going extreme and ignoring rational data or being completely guided by our emotions. It requires an integrated model in which both rational choices and emotional inputs are synthesised.

When group discussions drift towards data without regard for emotions, those who have a bad feeling about it remain silent. This unthinking consideration for data without the emotional guidance can be a recipe for failure. 

You might believe that groupthink is not a part of your meetings or organisation, but it might be interesting to validate it. Next time you are in a discussion, observe and ask yourself these questions: 

  • How many people speak up
  • Are these the same set of people who always raise their viewpoint? Do they concur with the leader or the most popular opinion as opposed to raising important data points against it
  • How does everyone react to information that challenges the most probable decision
  • How does the leader of the group react to information that refutes their opinion
  • Do people seem genuinely curious in exploring alternative paths and seem highly engaged in bringing the best solution to the table
  • How does ego or authority change the dynamics of the group discussion
  • Finally, how does everyone converge towards a solution? Is everyone expected to agree to a common solution or disagree and commit to move forward

Why is groupthink bad?

When I asked people what they think about making a decision in a group setting, I got some of these common responses:

  • Going for the most popular opinion is a sign of teamwork 
  • Some people do not speak up. That’s fine. It’s their problem
  • We have to reach consensus as a group and that implies everyone must agree to it
  • It’s wrong and disrespectful to disagree with experts or otherwise highly regarded people in the organisation
  • Challenge only when you can support an argument with data points
  • If everyone agrees to a decision, it must be right

Do you notice a pattern here? Most people think of the decision as a means to converge, an alignment of the sorts without paying attention to what makes it truly effective.

It may feel great to step out of the meeting without conflicts, where data points validate our original conclusion and everyone agrees, but do you really believe that without an opportunity to hear different perspectives, encouraging others to question our assumptions, share their viewpoints and clarify why they agree with what we believe, we can really make an informed decision? 

Groupthink is bad since it hides reality, inhibits us from uncovering a better truth, makes people conform instead of feeling empowered to deviate from common thinking and take risks instead of seeking approval. 

How do you expect to do team development, strategic planning and seek the right growth opportunities without a change in which constructive disagreements are celebrated, recognised and encouraged as a means to utilise the collective intelligence of the group and make a better decision. 

To enable this change, it’s important to realise that groupthink is a sign of a larger cultural problem in the organisation. Unless tackled at its core by applying certain practices in day-to-day work, the actual problem may never go away. 

Cultural change to manage groupthink 

Any cultural change in an organisation requires a massive effort and it starts with how leaders and managers in the organisation engage with their people, how they act, and communicate. 

To shift from groupthink to using the collective knowledge of the group, encourage individualism, constructive disagreements, creative thinking, and risk-taking by following these 3 key strategies:

1. Enable growth mindset

In a growth mindset, people do not consider disagreements as an attack on their intelligence or authority. They consider it as a means to learn new information, validate their understanding and solve problems by taking critical inputs into account. 

Once fear is out of their minds, they can engage in sharing information and hearing different viewpoints without fear of reprisal. 

To enable this mindset, have your employees learn about the tremendous benefits of shifting from fixed to a growth mindset. 

Carol Dweck talks about how fixed mindset creates groupthink in her book Mindset

There are so many ways the fixed mindset creates groupthink. Leaders are seen as gods who never err. A group invests itself with special talents and powers. Leaders, to bolster their ego, suppress dissent. Or workers, seeking validation from leaders, fall into line behind them. That’s why it’s critical to be in a growth mindset when important decisions are made. By relieving people of the illusions or the burdens of fixed ability—leads to a full and open discussion of the information and to enhanced decision making 

2. Respect diverse opinions

Encourage people to step out of their comfort zone and connect with other teams and functions. It will make them seek diverse opinions and consider ideas outside their circle of competence

By having transparent and authentic conversations with people from different backgrounds, they will expand their thinking and start appreciating the value of seeking different points of view.

An important way to enable this change is to ask questions as opposed to rushing to find answers. 

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • How do I know my belief and assumptions are correct? 
  • What do others have to say about it?
  • Am I asking the right questions?
  • How do I seek information I don’t know yet 

When leaders demonstrate curiosity to learn through questions, others may also adapt this practice in their day-to-day work. 

Ray Dalio talks about the importance of seeking diverse opinions in his book Principles

Knowing that I could be painfully wrong and curiosity about why other smart people saw things differently prompted me to look at things through the eyes of others as well as my own. That allowed me to see many more dimensions than if I saw things just through my own eyes. Learning how to weigh people’s inputs so that I chose the best ones—in other words, so that I believability weighted my decision making—increased my chances of being right and was thrilling

3. Be open and adaptable to change 

An important aspect to avoid groupthink is to look beyond the bounds of the organisation. With market shifts and multiple technological advancements, companies must always be on the lookout for ways to be better - better customer service, better hiring strategy, better processes, improved product.

When an organisation’s culture recognises innovation, seeks fresh perspectives and inspires new ways of doing things, people do not fall into the trap of groupthink as they are encouraged to think differently. 

An environment where change is celebrated gives hope and freedom to people to stand up to what’s right as opposed to what’s popular. 

6 guardrails to avoid groupthink and enable better decisions

When making decisions as a group, it’s important to have a clear decision-making process that enables its members to avoid biases, think creatively, contribute their thought process, and learn from each other.

Implement these 6 guardrails to avoid groupthink and enable better decision making within groups:

1. State your goals as a group

Have clear and concise goals that are easy to remember - what is it that you are trying to achieve from this decision. Provide supporting data points on why the goal is important, and explain how it fits into the overall vision and mission of the company.

The simple process of defining it and sharing it with the group enables every member to tie the goal to their respective functional areas and determine how it fits into their line of work.  

It’s also important to state the scope of the problem and establish clear boundaries. While it may seem restrictive at first, it’s actually very powerful as it enables people to think of creative solutions that can be put to action. Without scope and clear boundaries, you may get some great ideas that may not be executable within the resources of the company. 

2. Pre-define the template for consideration  

Every good decision needs a standardised method for evaluation. A template can be a powerful way to provide structure to different ideas and ensure there’s enough information to reach a conclusion. Consider covering some or all of these questions in the template: 

  • Brief summary of the idea
  • How is the idea relevant to the goal
  • What are the underlying assumptions in this idea
  • What’s required to make it operational, how is it feasible within the defined scope
  • What can cause this idea to fail, possible roadblocks 
  • What will happen if we don’t implement this idea
  • How do you feel about this idea
  • Do you have any supporting data points that makes this idea effective
  • What will be its second-order effects; how does it provide positive results compounded in the future

3. Collect ideas offline

Now that you have clearly stated goals and a pre-defined template, share it with the group offline and set a target date for people to list their ideas. Set the expectation that these ideas will be debated as part of a meeting later and it’s important for everyone to think deeply and creatively beyond their own team/function, something which is in the larger interest of the company and its people. 

Ensure the group composition is diverse enough to represent multiple points of view. It’s always a good idea to include functions that will be directly impacted by this decision.  

Make it mandatory for every member of the group to share one or more ideas. Also, keep the information anonymous to avoid biases during the discussion.

4. Meet as a group and set some ground rules

It’s very important to structure the meeting in a manner that all ideas are heard and debated properly before rejecting anything. 

Encourage everyone to actively listen to others' viewpoints and not to interrupt in between. Establish that debate is important, but it should be done in a constructive manner without attacking the person. Discussion should be about the idea and not the person. Setting this expectation upfront changes how people approach the conversation with a positive mindset.  

Employ multiple mental models to evaluate the effectiveness of every idea. Use an inversion mental model to identify failure patterns, second order thinking to determine future consequences of this decision and Occam’s razor to identify solutions with less assumptions. 

These mental models will enable the group to get past easy and predictable answers to more deliberate system2 thinking which requires conscious effort. 

One other effective strategy is for the leader of the group to hear others before offering their opinion. This enables the group to engage in a healthy debate without being biased by the leader’s opinion. 

If everyone agrees to the decision and there’s not enough debate, consider meeting another time and advise everyone to think of more data points for the next meeting. A silent nod or lack of active engagement is a sign of groupthink. 

5. Share final decision with the group

While it may not be possible for everyone to align to a common solution, it’s important for the group to disagree and commit once a decision has been made. 

It ensures that the group as a whole commits and respects the decision. Most decisions require strong collaboration across different teams and functions and without commitment, the decision will only be an intent without a means to generate the desired impact. 

6. Improve the process using feedback loop

Use the feedback from the process and outcomes to determine areas of improvement. There’s no single strategy that fits all kinds of decisions to be made. 

Determining what works for your organisation and people for different circumstances is the best way to put any change into practice. 

While groupthink is bad, making decisions as a group is highly effective. What’s acceptable behaviour in a group setting at your workplace?