Groupthink Culture: How BAs Can Navigate The Tide

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Groupthink, a term introduced by social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, occurs when a group makes bad decisions because group pressures lead to a reduction in mental efficiency and moral judgement. These groups ignore alternatives and are usually insulated from outside opinions.

Think about these scenarios:

You attend a meeting where ideas are bounced around. You have a different opinion but don’t speak up because you want to appear supportive or compliant. Or perhaps you don’t want to go through the embarrassment of being labelled the Devil’s Advocate.
You work as part of a team but sense that people don’t want to speak up.
You find yourself in a situation where there’s a collective opinion of what needs to happen but you silently disagree. Your “silent disagreement” is however passed through a series of mental filters to translate it into something less conflicting with what the group has agreed and one that is more socially acceptable. 

Groupthink occurs when the desire to agree with team members or the leader overrides the desire to suggest alternatives, criticize a decision or express an unpopular opinion. There are many examples of Groupthink disasters. Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion are two popular examples. You probably have examples from your own organization or team.

Organizations with directive leadership can easily create situations of groupthink, to their own detriment. Directive leaders are closed leasers who promote a particular alternative from the beginning of the group discussion while ignoring others, thereby creating groupthink symptoms. In such environments, when a team member questions the rationale behind a decision and they are criticized, others become less willing to object to decisions over time. Team members thus begin to censor their own opinions in order to conform. The less people voice out contrary opinions, the more the illusion of unanimity is sustained, thereby fueling the groupthink culture.

If you work as part of a team and feel you can’t contribute your ideas, your enthusiasm will fade quickly. Groupthink can be minimized by encouraging contrary opinions, validating them, not criticizing team members that come up with these contrary opinions, and generally ensuring that every team member that has something to bring to the table, is heard.

Functional teams in particular are prone to this, especially when the culture of the organization emphasizes boundaries and penalties. The pursuit of consensus and conformance can quickly give rise to mediocrity and substandard performance within teams.

When you are unable to speak your mind for fear of upsetting others or not playing along with the team, there are far ranging consequences:

  • It kills creativity and innovation as team members tend to “align” their opinions with the popular or accepted opinion
  • The true depth of a team member’s expertise or skills will never be truly known as they are always confined to work and think within the norms of what is considered acceptable
  • It creates an environment of fear and distrust, as no one really knows what the next person truly feels.

Business analysts who are in leadership positions or are constantly interacting with stakeholders should facilitate meetings with the aim of minimizing the effects of groupthink, as much as possible. 

Here are some ways BAs can rise to the challenge of addressing groupthink among their teams and relevant stakeholders:

  • Assign a team member as devil’s advocate to question opinions during meetings
  • Avoid stating your expectations from the outset and encourage discourse in order to gain insight into the variety of opinions
  • Collect and use anonymous suggestions for business improvement. This will make team members feel their opinions count.
  • Encourage quiet team members to contribute during meetings, so at least everyone is heard

The more politicized or hierarchical an organization is, the more one becomes enmeshed in an endless loop of political correctness and groupthink. This is reflected in constantly “dumbing down” what one feels or believes in order to conform to opinions and expressions that are “socially acceptable”. 

Organizations that promote such a culture will in good time, lose sight of the truth. A truth they might have to find the hard way. When we lose the capacity to speak the truth, raise contrary opinions without fear of being criticized, or fail to see the value in each other’s opinions, half the battle is lost.

Business Analysts, in working within teams and with stakeholders are faced with the difficult job of unravelling the insincerities and political undertones that characterize stakeholder interactions. Many a project have failed due to cultural factors masked under the umbrella of “Poor communication”. It’s time to look beyond seeking to please others or the boss and calling things as they really are. 

What are your thoughts?