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The Danger of Groupthink

Oh boy…..conflict!

This week has seen a Cabinet reshuffle as Boris Johnson gets his team together. Don’t worry, this week’s tip is not about politics; well not party politics anyway. I watched the news and saw that Sajid Javid had resigned as Chancellor. One expert said he had done so because the Prime Minister wanted a totally united top team who were ‘all on the same page’. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for great teamwork and people being committed to achieving the team’s results. I also accept that a silo mentality can be counter-productive. But I want to explore the comments of the expert mentioned above because there is an inherent danger in what he suggests.

Many people do not like conflict in the workplace and struggle with it. Conflict is naturally uncomfortable. Yet productive conflict that is focused on the issues or problems is essential for any great team to function effectively. When teams have a culture of vulnerability-based trust, conflict stops being personal attacks and simply becomes an attempt to find the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.

The alternative, going back to the expert’s comments, is that a team suffers from what Patrick Lencioni refers to as ‘dysfunctional harmony’. This is the condition where people are reluctant to speak up or disagree with colleagues. 

So let me ask you: have you ever thought about speaking up in a meeting and then decided against it because you did not want to appear critical, negative or unsupportive of the team’s efforts? Or, perish the thought, because you feared repraisals?


If you have ever done this, you might have been the victim of a phenomenon known as Groupthink. Conceived by Irving Janus in 1972 Groupthink is defined by Mindtools ( as:


“a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. Here, the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem solving.” 


As Janis put it,

“Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures.”


Now, let me say again, I’m all for cohesive groups or teams. But Groupthink can actually lead to ineffective decision making because it encourages members of the group or team to ignore possible problems with the group’s decisions and discount the opinions of outsiders. In meetings, I have seen people sit on their hands and not voice any challenge to the team’s thinking, nod in all the right places but then walk out and not be committed to the actions agreed in the meeting.  

There are many causes of Groupthink. One of them is a strong, persuasive and powerful leader who everyone defers to. Two well-known examples of Groupthink in action are the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the first example engineers of the space shuttle apparently were aware of some faulty parts months before takeoff, but they did not want negative press so they pushed ahead with the launch anyway.


With the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the newly elected President Kennedy made a decision and the people around him supported it despite their own concerns. Kennedy, a powerful personality, demanded that his team to devise a plan that was in line with his ideas rather than one that made the most strategic sense. 

In 1982 an Air Florida flying from Washington to Fort Lauderdale crashed into the Potomac River killing many of its 80 passengers and crew. From the evidence given at the subsequent inquiry, members of the crew were aware that the wings had too much snow and ice on them but decided to withhold their concerns for fears of being criticised by the pilot.

What’s all this got to do with Boris Johnson you may ask. Well, if the expert mentioned above is right and he is not willing to have people in his cabinet who disagrees with his views and those of his advisors, he may have to pay the price of Groupthink as no-one will be brave enough to disagree with him.


I believe that conflict if it is focused on solving problems rather than being ‘mean spirited personal attacks’ is something to be encouraged rather than frowned upon. So, as a leader or manager, it may be time for you to actually encourage people to challenge your ideas.

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