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The Peril of Groupthink

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This week saw the publication of a House of Commons inquiry into the handling of the early stages of the pandemic.  Whatever your politics, there are valuable insights here into the challenges we need to overcome when tasked with collaborating on a complex challenge.

While hindsight makes it easier to identify the best decisions that could have been made, the biggest lesson from the report is to look at what prevented perfect decision making from happening at the time.  This is something we can all look to learn from, not just at a governmental level but within the team and groups we all operate in over the course of our day to day work.

One of the biggest hindrances to effective decision making highlighted in the report was the prevalence of ‘groupthink’.  As summarised by Professor Trish Greenhalgh of the University of Oxford in The Guardian, “It would appear that even senior government ministers were reluctant to push back on scientific advice that seemed to go against common sense interpretations of the unfolding crisis”.

Groupthink isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to government departments or even large organisations.  It’s something that happens every day as we seek to find agreement and harmony in our collaboration with others.

It feels comfortable and efficient when we are all ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ and are in agreement on the best way forward.  But our best thinking comes when we consider a problem from different perspectives, or test our thinking in different ways.

The Commons report author, Greg Clark, concludes there is a need to“institutionalise challenge more”.  The difficulty we have here is that while one or two people may well have genuinely different perspectives or useful challenges to bring, they’ll have a tendency to fall in with the majority view, whether they are aware of it or not.

This is something that can stymie excellence. We stifle diverse opinion. And even if some minority viewpoints do somehow manage to squeeze their way out into the open, confirmation bias will lead the majority of people to undervalue those divergent views.

Nobody’s trying to make bad choices, it’s just how we create harmony and simplicity in our minds.

To avoid this groupthink trap we need to consciously invite everyone to be a devil’s advocate. To mandate dissent. If you make it OK to share contrasting perspectives – or even require someone to do so in every meeting you attend – research suggests that your group will eventually make better decisions.

While this can be awkward to initiate, using ‘If…” questions can take out much of the potential conflict and awkwardness.  If there were something we were missing here, what would it be? If there were a completely different way to see this, what would it be? If there were one thing that worried you about this, what would it be?

The ‘if’ framing is important, because it allows people to be more speculative and less worried about being right before they speak up. Doing this means people don’t get labelled as difficult for daring to differ.  Then, once all the issues are on the table, the group can have an explicit discussion about how to address each issue and move forward.

If you’ve ever found yourself with a nagging doubt you don’t feel you can raise, or have been blindsided by a problem that hindsight suggests you could have foreseen, then tackling groupthink might be the best thing you can do to improve your collective wisdom and decision making.

Co Contributor – Alex Haywood
Image – Fakurian Design @unsplash

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