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Groupthink: “When all think alike, no one is thinking”

That quote from Walter Lippmann highlights the negative side of groupthink – one which can have a significant impact for companies. In the current climate, where organisations need to adapt quickly, the ability to make informed and accurate decisions is vitally important.

The impact of a lack of cognitive diversity can be huge: from Arcadia Group’s “failure to notice how retail was changing” to one expert saying that groupthink impacted the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, there’s no shortage of examples of the impact of poor decisions.

How can businesses learn from these errors and reap the benefits that come with better cognitive diversity?

What is groupthink?

Psychologist Irving Janis was among the first people to really focus on the impact of groupthink. He defined it as:

“a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Organisational psychologist Adam Grant similarly focuses on the groupthink’s quest for agreement, saying it’s “the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent”.

And while dissent in the workplace can be seen as problematic, a lack of diversity of thought can lead to big issues, both in work and beyond.

Negative impact of groupthink

Businesses which lack cognitive diversity are likely to make poorer decisions, increasing risk and impacting results. They may also be more likely to stick to an expected approach, minimising innovation and the ability to adapt to external drivers.

In total, Janis identified eight factors that are apparent in groupthink:

  1. The illusion of invulnerability, where it is assumed that any decision will be successful
  2. The belief in the inherent morality of the group, which assumes that any decision will be right, leading to them overlooking the impact of that decision
  3. Collective rationalisation, where dissenting opinions can be rationalised and therefore ignored
  4. Out-group stereotypes, which means people raising alternative opinions are doing so to be contrary and inherently opposed to the group
  5. Self-censorship, where people feel unable to express their true opinions, leading to…
  6. The illusion of unanimity, where everyone in the group is assumed to agree and silence is taken to be assent
  7. Direct pressure on dissenters, to toe the line
  8. Self-appointed “mindguards”, who protect the group by placing that pressure on anyone straying from the consensus view.

 

These factors may not be fully recognised internally, but together they limit innovation, increase poor decisions and lead to the premature adoption of the expected and preferred solution.

Examples of these impacts can be seen in everything from the Challenger disaster and the Yorkshire Ripper investigation to the collapse of Swissair.

Benefits of cognitive diversity

If companies can work to increase the diversity of thought within their business, by both recruiting a diverse range of people and by ensuring they are involved in decision making, very real benefits can be realised.

These include:

 

Ways to improve cognitive diversity

Unlike other diversity measures, cognitive diversity isn’t visible and it isn’t something that individuals can identify themselves, making it difficult to measure and quantify. However, there are a number of steps that companies can take to avoid groupthink within their business:

1. Improving diversity within your organisation

It’s generally expected that increasing a company’s overall diversity will also improve the cognitive diversity and there has been some research to back this up.

Groups with more gender diversity and ethnic diversity made better decisions than groups with a more homogenous composition. And as groupthink often denies the voice of the individual, it is interesting to find research that suggests that millennials are the most individualistic generation, with younger people generally displaying more assertive and independent attributes, suggesting the importance of having a mix of age groups involved in decisions.

However, other research has challenged whether these factors alone impact groupthink, instead emphasising the need for cognitive diversity. The study identified two key factors which influenced the quality of decision making in a group:

  • knowledge processing (whether individuals prefer to deploy existing knowledge or to generate new ideas) and
  • perspective (whether people deploy their own expertise or use the ideas and expertise of others)

 

Groups which included individuals who had different approaches for both factors performed better.

Another way to improve cognitive diversity is to look at increasing the neurodiversity within an organisation. The Diversity Project says, “Neurodiversity describes the variation in human neurocognitive functioning and behaviour. Combining neurotypical and neurodivergent thinkers can be a valuable addition to a company’s diversity of thought. Hence, neurodiversity can make an important contribution to overall cognitive diversity.”

Furthermore, companies such as SAP and Universal Music are now actively looking to recruit neurodiverse or autistic individuals to help them to innovate and bring new perspectives into their businesses.

2. Ensuring hiring processes encourage cognitive diversity

Bringing in the right people into the business helps to build a workforce with more cognitive diversity.

Groupthink can happen in hiring processes, where internal biases can lead to individuals who are different being rejected by acquisition team. Reviewing the entire process, from how and where applications are sourced to the interview and onboarding stages, can help to identify and minimise these risks.

One of the core areas that is often discussed in recruitment is the importance of “cultural fit” when hiring. When handled correctly, this can add value to the company as employees perform better and are more likely to stay; when it’s lacking, it can bring issues from lower morale to lost time for management and HR teams in addressing problems.

However, companies should be mindful that a good cultural fit does not drift into a lack of cognitive diversity. Finding employees who fit your organisation’s values is beneficial but it’s a fine line between ensuring teams will gel and recruiting people who all think alike.

When employee referral programmes (ERPs) drive a significant level of recruitment, there is a possibility that teams begin to lack diversity. Our research found that in tech industries, up to 30% of new recruits come via ERPs; other data suggests that the figure could be as high as 52%. It’s important that companies do not lose sight of the need for a diverse talent pool.

3. Including people with dissenting opinions

Having a rigorous recruitment process may not be enough to avoid the challenges of groupthink. For example, while Google focus on “building a more representative and inclusive workplace, and that begins with hiring, some employees have raised issues.

In 2017, James Damore was fired after circulating an internal memo where he called the company an “ideological echo chamber”, stating that the business had “an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.” Google responded to say that he had been fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.”

In the last few weeks, more controversy has arisen with Timnet Gebrut leaving the business, stating in another internal memo that the company was “silencing marginalised voices”. Google responded to say they “have a strong track record of publishing work that challenges the status quo” and they are “committed to making sure… every Googler can do their best work. We’re pushing hard on our efforts to improve representation and inclusiveness… because we know this will lead to better research and a better experience for everyone here.”

Organisational psychologist Adam Grant recommends finding people who have dissenting opinions and ensuring they are listened to within groups. Although Irving Janis recommended that all participants play devil’s advocate, research from the University of California says that those who truly hold a divergent view are more likely to promote it strongly and are therefore more likely to be heard.

4. Separate groups into sub-groups or seek individual insights in other formats

While discussion can be a good way for groups to explore ideas, dominant personalities and expectations can lead to individuals being less likely to raise alternative perspectives.

One way to mitigate this can be to break people into sub-groups, where people may feel more able to express their views or where each group may reach an alternative outcome.

Likewise, allowing people to feedback individually, with one person collating the opinions, may allow lead to less influence being exerted and a wider range of views being captured. This also enables all individuals to make their views known, including those who are less likely to be heard in group session or who prefer to express themselves in writing.

5. Recognise the risk factors

Ensuring teams have visibility of the eight factors apparent in groupthink can help minimise its likelihood.

In particular, building a culture which emphases the importance of diverse opinions, recognises the need for debate, removes the focus on the cult of the leader, and ensures processes are in place where all voices can be heard, can help businesses to benefit from cognitive diversity.

How we help companies avoid groupthink

To have a truly diverse mix of employees, you need a robust and more proactive approach to recruitment. We partner with our clients to help them to understand best practice and to engage with candidates from more diverse backgrounds, enabling them to hire in a way that allows the business to grow and thrive through diversity of thinking. All our services can, in numerous ways, help companies to avoid groupthink:

Talent intelligence

Our robust, real-time insights uncover best practice by allowing our clients to understand and learn from companies who are further along their diversity journey.

Talent mapping and talent search

Our approach removes unconscious biases from the recruitment process. With talent mapping, we map the market to find candidates beyond the usual talent pools, bringing more diversity into the mix. With talent search, our focus builds more diverse shortlists for smart and open hiring.

Talent pipelining

Diversity is an ongoing process and by building intelligent pipelines, we help our clients to get ahead of the curve by engaging with future talent today. This not only builds relationships in advance of hiring, but also uncovers insights to help drive strategy.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help with diversity, please get in touch.

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