Groupthink – An Overview

Many organisations are beset with hierarchies and institutional structures which forestall challenges and accountability. Decision-making environments, such as business meetings or strategic planning events can often reproduce existing routines, dynamics and interactions, reinforcing and exacerbating divisions. This can lead to conformity, consensus-seeking and organisational inertia. Such organisations run the risk of creating environments in which there are constraints on reflection on established practices and questioning of accepted wisdoms, with little scope for creativity, experimentation and generation of new ideas. Individuals and organisations can become ‘stuck’ in ways of working and modes of operation resulting in poor decision making.

Nowadays, it seems obvious that strategic decisions are not made in isolation, that they are often made in a group context. However, in 1972 when the psychologist Irving Janis, coined the term ‘groupthink’, this was not the case. Most psychologically oriented studies focused on the factors concerning the individual rather than the group.

What Irving Janis did was to revisit some historically disastrous cases and analyse them in terms of the conditions which led to poor decisions being made through concurrence. These included issues, which highly relevant then, still have their ramifications today. He analysed General MacArthur’s pursuit of the North Korean army beyond the 38th parallel, the Eisenhower / Kennedy Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and the escalation of the war in Vietnam.

The theory of groupthink has continued to attract interest and consideration and whilst there is little research which seeks to empirically test his theory in controlled environments, there has been much analysis which applies it in the contexts of business, education and medicine, covering significant events such as the Challenger shuttle disaster, Tianamen Square and more recently in the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Janis, in his 1982 book, Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos defines groupthink as the negative decision-making process driven by in-group pressures which can lead to poor moral judgement, reduced mental efficiency and inadequate testing of reality. In simpler terms, groupthink might be described by the extreme tendency of a group to seek concurrence, in such a way that the drive for agreement overrides the realistic appraisal of other viable courses of action.
Various researchers have categorised the symptoms of groupthink, but they broadly fall into 3 categories: overestimation of the power and morality of the group, close mindedness and pressures towards uniformity. This can result in groups feeling invulnerable and overly optimistic, collectively rationalising and ignoring warnings and explicitly or implicitly applying pressure on any disagreement.
Although there has always been some discussion about whether or not groupthink exists as it’ own construct. It is apparent that its symptoms and its consequences are recognisable to many in the business environment and beyond.
Janis subsequently, went on and tried to identify the causes or ‘antecedent conditions’ which lead to groupthink situations and decisions. Predominant amongst these is strong group cohesion, usually this might be seen as a good thing. However, when combined with one or more of a range of other conditions, including high stress from external threats, being isolated from critics and low self-esteem of group members, usually due to experience of previous task failure or complexity, then this cohesion can produce some undesirable results.
In Janis’s analysis and in more recent studies, there has been some refinement of the antecedent conditions. Some have suggested that it is less the ‘group cohesion’ which matters, but the ‘task cohesion’ which is relevant. That is, if group members are focused of an important outcome and this is combined with overly directive leadership, then disastrous results can occur. This analysis was applied to the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, where over 2 days 8 climbers died descending the summit.

In other cases people discuss variations on Janis’s original analysis, there are issues with leadership; lack of impartiality, overly aggressive, overly charismatic. Issues with a variety of external pressures are suggested, such as time constraints, or focus on success, what might be termed ‘threat rigidity’, causing a lack of flexibility in thinking, where people ‘freeze up’. Predominantly, there are issues with overly cohesive groups such as complacency, excessive informality and over-confidence. Whilst these more recent studies serve to enhance the picture of the antecedent conditions to groupthink, Janis’s original construction still holds strong through the many years since its inception.

Whether it is ‘task’ cohesion or ‘group’ cohesion, it is apparent that in what might be termed the Pursey Principle*, such focus can lead to working within a ‘bubble’ where there is no space for dissent, disagreement or for other voices to enter. Across many analyses, this condition when combined with others has been at the heart of the break-down of decision making.

We have seen these analyses across many large and small-scale contexts, across time and across industries. We don’t suggest here that we have the solution to all these problems. However, we recognise that in many of the issues that have been identified, the ancient art of clowning appears to contain some of the antidotes to the ills associated with groupthink and its antecedent conditions. We don’t suggest that clowning is the only answer, but it is one that might have some benefits and it might just be fun.

*Jimmy Pursey / Dave Parsons – ‘If the kids are united then we’ll never be divided’ (Sham 69, 1978)