How many times have you sat in a meeting, wondering if you should mention a potential problem with a plan or a more efficient method—but didn’t? How many times have you requested input or ideas from your team or department, only to be met with averted eyes and resounding silence? How many times have you gone along with the crowd because you didn’t want to seem different? You just engaged in or encountered ‘groupthink.’
The term ‘groupthink’ was coined in 1972 by Irving Janis, and everyone has engaged in, been affected by or has seen ‘groupthink’ in action. It identifies the mass or pack mentality through which individuals, often with dissenting opinion or contradictory knowledge, hold their dissension to themselves out of fear—fear of bucking trend, being labeled a non-team-player or being tagged as an anarchist or simply “different.” In a nutshell, engaging in groupthink is equivalent to ‘going along to get along.’ Sometimes, however, shunning ‘groupthink’ is the wiser and more responsible action to take.
Groupthink does not mean the collaborative effort involved in a group of individuals thinking about the same thing. There is real benefit from individuals gathering to pick each other’s brains for ideas. Groupthink is based on our need to belong, to bond and be a member of a pack. People who groupthink aren’t necessarily lemmings either, following without thought and whose instincts are only to follow the pack. A ‘groupthinker’ is someone who doesn’t offer independent view, who goes along with the crowd despite contrary feelings or impulses. Their need to belong is greater than the need to dissent, and that isn’t always a good thing.
One of the best but least-known examples of groupthink revolves around the space shuttle, Challenger, on January 28, 1986. The short-lived flight was historic in several ways: It was the first space flight to include members who were not trained astronauts; it included the first women in space; it was the shortest manned flight in aerospace history, and it killed every member on board.
Engineers knew of design flaws but said nothing until well after the explosion. That groupthink attitude cost people their lives, and those engineers ‘went along with the crowd’ when they should have made their concerns over the design flaw known.
Children drinking, smoking, ‘doing drugs’ and having sex because all their friends are can be examples of groupthink in action. Kids often do know better, but they don’t want to be “different” from their peers, so they engage in activity they know is wrong, simply to bond with others—to be included in a group. These groupthink actions differ from the same actions deliberately taken out of spite, defiance or rebellion.
What differentiates groupthink from other compliance psychologies are the underlying motives and the silent knowledge of wrongness. Silence in groupthink can be capitulation—the lack of a strong sense of independence and giving in to pack instinct dominance.
The other thing groupthink is not is good. It always has a negative aspect, whether it affects goal outcome, reduces self-respect or compromises morals or ethics. You might voice your differing opinion or present contradictory information and still be directed to comply: That’s not groupthink. There is no silence involved. Whether you comply with that directive or engage in the activity depends on the exact situation and morality or ethical guidelines.
Conquer groupthink: Maintain a healthy self-respect; adhere to your higher thought processes, moral and ethical compasses, and never be afraid to speak when it counts.