- 20 April 2023
- Posted by: M-author
- Category: Workplace
According to the World Economic Forum, employers should be seeking out 10 essential skills* in their workforce. These include critical thinking, innovation and complex problem solving. However, original thought is often discouraged, ignored or not voiced in team discussions due to a phenomenon called Groupthink. What is this and how can it be avoided?
The Importance of Creative & Critical Thinking
The ability to solve complex problems and make sound decisions are essential skills in the future of work and both depend on critical thinking. This involves researching, gathering insight and then analysing the information with logic and reason. To do it effectively, we need to draw on a diverse range of sources, rather than jumping on the first idea and running with it.
Business success is dependent on making sound decisions that improve efficiency, drive innovation and open up new possibilities. For this, we need fresh thinkers and disrupters to be free to express their ideas and opinions openly. However, there is a common factor getting in the way and it’s referred to as Groupthink.
What is Groupthink?
Groupthink is a concept first presented by the business psychologist, Irving Janis. In extensive research, Janis found that group discussion often led to decisions being made with less critical reasoning or evaluation than people apply individually.
Inwardly, people may not agree with the idea being proposed, they might question the outcomes or may have alternative thoughts. However, the desire not to disrupt the group dynamics means that these are not aired. Instead, conformity rules and everyone goes along with a proposed suggestion without it being debated.
The result is that often a non-optimal decision is made and acted on, without full consideration of the consequences. Even when it works out, it could have been better if potential issues had been ironed out in the early stages.
Janis’ research suggested that people are more creative when given a problem to solve independently and without interruption. This approach can generate a greater range of ideas from different team members, which can then be openly explored.
Isn’t Brainstorming Great for Creative Thinking?
In ‘How to Think Up’, Alex Osborne presented the concept of brainstorming. This is bringing the team together to openly share ideas on how to approach a challenge or achieve a goal. Osborne promoted an environment free of criticism, where everything would be recorded, to be analysed at a later date. The idea of brainstorming is that one person’s suggestion sparks thoughts in others’ minds. This allows a concept to develop.
Brainstorming sounds great in theory and has been widely used in business, but it doesn’t often work in the way it was intended. In reality, some individuals dominate and others sit back and let others get on with it. Those who feel uncomfortable in group situations, including introverts and neurodiverse employees, don’t express their views for fear of judgement.
In brainstorming sessions, I’ve experienced ideas being discounted before being recorded. It might have been the start of a brilliant solution but was deemed to have no value by one or two individuals, so they moved on. I am also aware that a few people don’t bother speaking up, as in the past their ideas have been ignored, overridden or even ridiculed. They want to avoid the negative impact of being shunned or being perceived as difficult.
This brings us back to Groupthink, where people want to minimise conflict or be seen as an outsider. As a result, they just go along with popular opinion.
How to Prevent Groupthink
So, if we want to encourage creative ideas, critical thinking and innovation to drive business success, we need to be aware of Groupthink and implement strategies to avoid it.
An Objective Attitude & Approach
Firstly, the leader of group discussions needs to be objective and open to all possibilities. Sometimes, it is useful if they aren’t directly involved, either from a different department or an external consultant.
Secondly, they should present the goal without personal opinions on solutions; this is what we want to achieve, how might we get there? It can be beneficial to present this in advance of the meeting, giving individuals time to research, consider and develop ideas on their own.
In the meeting, the leader needs to facilitate discussions, actively inviting everyone’s input. Listening is also a critical skill in this situation, as well as asking open questions that draw out the thought process behind ideas.
The facilitator can also play devil’s advocate; intentionally questioning ideas. This isn’t to undermine them, so has to be introduced in a positive manner that encourages debate, discussion and the development of solutions.
Time to Sleep on It
It can also be beneficial not to commit to a final idea during the meeting. This can be difficult when a prompt decision is necessary. However, time to think it over and regroup the next morning offers a chance for the idea to be more fully considered, researched and questioned.
Our initial response is typically emotive, so we need time to apply critical thinking. As such, a suggestion that sounds extreme could hold the gem of an idea when it is explored with reason. Because of this, allowing more time increases the chances that an optimal decision will be made.
Why Use a Business Psychologist to Enhance Workplace Outcomes?
As a business psychologist, I provide a range of services, including workshops, assessments and facilitation to promote healthy working environments where individuals and businesses thrive. If Groupthink is impairing creative and critical thinking, innovation and decision making, get in touch.
With an understanding of the specific challenges in your business, I will develop and, if required, help to implement a plan that results in positive change.