The Groupthink Swamp

Groupthink in Project Teams and Work Groups.

A threat to organisational effectiveness and competitive advantage.


What is Groupthink?

Team members are more concerned with unity, harmony and fellowship than with the quality of the group’s decisions.

  • Often credited by influential members as the reason why the team prospers
  • Over time groupthink becomes a powerful norm reflecting the importance of conformity in members’ minds
  • If threatened, they redouble their conforming behaviour
  • Groupthink undermines quality of decision making
  • Groupthink accumulates and produces sub-par decisions
  • Common in government fiascos (high-level policy-making) and board of directors
  • Groupthink is often caused by strong leaders who are autocratic and charismatic
  • Such leaders have firm preferences – one can see their fingerprints on the group’s decisions
  • However, it is necessary in case of time urgency and to avert crisis -> political and military leaders with task and command groups


Indicators of Groupthink:

Illusion of invulnerability

  • The team / work group concludes success comes easily even in face of unfavourable odds
  • “We have overcome bigger problems than this”

Collective rationalism

  • The team / work group believes they cannot fail, because they are oblivious to external indicators that could spell trouble
  • “We do not need more market data; we know this product is a winner”


  • Self-appointed guards who eliminate or filter disagreeable external information to protect from threatening outsiders
  • “Do not let that guy from engineering in our meeting. We know the product will perform in the field”

Belief in inherent morality of group

  • Group / Team members protect the self-esteem and reputation of the group by claiming their decision occupies moral and ethical ground
  • “We’re the greatest!”

Negative stereotyping of opposition

  • Smug self-satisfaction, the team / work group labels opposition as dull, stupid, confused or cowardly
  • “Our rivals are losers”

Direct pressure to dissenters

  • If a member disagrees, the mindguards encourage the dissenter to remember the importance of unity and harmony
  • “You really need to ‘go with the flow’ and not ‘rock the boat'”


  • If a group / team member doubts the wisdom of group’s decision, he / she keeps quiet to show he / she is on board
  • “I think I need to conform. I have my doubts, but everyone seems so sure we’re doing the right thing”

Illusion unanimity

  • Each member takes the silence of the others as total commitment to the course of action
  • “Not one member of the team has raised an objection! I had better support the decision”


Tips to keep teams on track (out of the groupthink swamp)

  1. The leader must assign the role of critical evaluator to members on a rotating basis. In addition, the leader must encourage members to question his position on a team decision
  2. Influential members should not pre-specify solutions / methods for reaching solutions. Separate idea generation from idea evaluation (aspect of brainstorming)
  3. The leader should direct subgroups to arrive at separate, independent decisions before polling the entire group on its decision
  4. At pre-specified intervals, outside experts should be invited to provide guidance
  5. When rivals’ actions are the focus of group decision making, sessions should be devoted to exploration of warning signals against forms of retaliation (revenge).
  6. A “second chance” meeting should be held after the group has selected an official position. The purpose is to express doubts that may have occurred to members.

Source: “Organisational Behaviour” by Professor Robert Daily – Heriot-Watt University

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