Escaping the Pull of Groupthink in Decision Making

Teams and groups that work together for an extended time run the risk of getting pulled into “groupthink” in the decisions they make. Given their shared history of discussions, debates, negotiations, and past successes, team members will internalize the attributes of decisions that will and won’t work in the team, and members will unintentionally or otherwise avoid starting down the path of arguing a specific point because they know it will get rejected by the team. The team has a defined profile of information that is seen as valid or not, and will overemphasize information that confirms its current approach. Although the team’s decision making processes will be highly efficient, when operating amidst changing environmental conditions, its effectiveness will falter.

The broad solution to groupthink is the introduction of new people, ideas, and frameworks, combined with a sufficient level of force to break the current decision making patterns. For example:

  • Provide coaching on group dynamics and decision making processes. If you have a good group of people on a team and are loath to change the mix, provide coaching and mentoring on group dynamics and effective group decision making processes. With the right input and an opportunity to stand back from the moment-by-moment pressures felt by the group, they may be able to identify and fix what’s become broken in their approach.
  • Require an external review of the team’s recommendations. Put together a secondary group to review one or more of the team’s recommendations, and to issue a written analysis of its effectiveness. Require that the team consider the analysis and judge the validity of each recommendation.
  • Replace people on the team. Remove people on the current team, and add new people in their places. You need to change a sufficient number of people so that the newcomers aren’t shoehorned into the team’s current ways of working, but not too many so the team dies altogether. Depending on the severity of the problem, change between 30% and 70% of the team in order to bring in new perspectives and force the team to renegotiate how it makes decisions.
  • Disband the team and start afresh. If all else fails, disband the current team and convene an entirely new team. This is should be the last resort though.

Effective decision making in teams requires both efficiency and effectiveness. Groupthink threatens the latter, and needs to be dealt with head on.

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