Think about the last time you had the task of making a decision as part of a group. Imagine one person proposes an idea that everyone responds to enthusiastically. You, however, have some doubts. Do you speak up and voice your opinion? Or, do you keep quiet and decide to go along with the majority?
In many cases, we choose the latter, figuring it’s not worth risking a negative reaction or disrupting the harmony of the group. Social psychologists refer to this as “groupthink,” describing it as “a phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.”
From the outside, teams afflicted with groupthink may appear to be operating well; they seem to make decisions effectively, because they can reach a consensus quickly and get projects done in a timely manner. However, when the valuable opinion of each team member isn’t being fully utilized, the group’s ability to generate quality results is impaired.
Overcoming and preventing this can be a challenging task, but the potential benefits of doing so are limitless. Here are six research-based strategies for encouraging constructive discussion and avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink.
1. Recruit a diverse team
One of the conditions often leading to groupthink is creating a team consisting of very similar members. Instead of surrounding yourself with like-minded people, allow the team to benefit from a multitude of different perspectives. When recruiting, try to assemble a team of people with diverse interests, experiences, and passions. Alternative viewpoints give rise to more challenging and well-rounded discussions — an ideal scenario for creative problem solving.
2. Remain an impartial leader
The leader of the group will invariably have individual preferences and opinions, but he or she should avoid stating them at the outset of group discussions. Instead, if you try to remain impartial, the group will feel less pressure to agree with you, and in the process, you may even come up with superior solutions.
3. Encourage conflict and debate
Because fear of judgement (evaluation apprehension) is often thought to hinder creative thinking, we’re often instructed to avoid criticizing others during a brainstorming session. However, recent research has thrown that widely held belief into question. Rather than inhibiting creativity, encouraging debate and constructive criticism has actually been found to enhance decision-making processes.
According to research conducted by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, establishing a condition where debate is expected will encourage us to pay close attention to what others are saying and to re-evaluate our own beliefs. Overall, this is shown to generate more ideas than traditional brainstorming methods.
4. Assign the role of devil’s advocate
On that note, it can be useful to appoint a team member to take on the role of the devil’s advocate during meetings. This person’s primary aim should be to challenge the group’s assumptions and encourage them to address the different perspectives that are being raised. This person should look for flaws in reasoning, false inferences, and overlooked information.
5. Gather outside opinions
Given the fact that we often feel pressure to refrain from going against the group’s views, it can be helpful to invite someone from outside the group to attend meetings on a staggered basis. Perhaps this could be someone from another department, who has a different viewpoint from your own. Tell them what you’re considering and why you think it will work. The outside member should be encouraged to challenge and question the members’ views, and in turn, the group should leverage their feedback, input, and ideas.
6. Allow for independent evaluation
Finally, it’s often argued that the modern workplace is better suited to extroverts, who enjoy talking problems through and tend to thrive on social stimulation. Given that team meetings are often the primary means for generating ideas and making decisions, it’s important to establish conditions that cater to other personality types too. For example, introverts tend to be more productive when they’re given space to work on a problem alone. Taking this into account, a simple but effective tactic is to provide your team with prior notice of a meeting’s agenda. This way, each team member is given the time to consider their ideas in advance and can arrive at the meeting fully prepared to contribute.
Are there other strategies that you find particularly useful for avoiding groupthink? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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