Does Groupthink Hurt Your Productivity at Work?

“Groupthink: a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” — Irving Janis, American research psychologist.

“The tribe often thinks the visionary has turned his back on them. When, in fact, the visionary has simply turned his face to the future.” — Ray Davis, American motivational speaker and writer.

GroupThinkCan working in an open office, engaging in brainstorming sessions, and contributing to a business team actually hurt your personal productivity? Excellent question, because all of the above—and many other group-oriented activities—are integral business practices in today’s companies. We’ve all experienced team-building retreats, TQM sessions of yesteryear, and of course, meeting after meeting. Ideally, this all melds us into a tighter team, an organic solutions machine that operates as a single, comfortable unit with the organization’s goals constantly in mind—even as we, the cogs, retain our separate identities. Ahem.

Yes, most collaborative efforts do increase workplace productivity. However, when taken too far, all the aforementioned can also break down into something psychologists call “groupthink”: a large group attitude where the drive for consensus drowns out individual creativity. Introverts stay silent in the face of assertive people who dominate the group, and the team loses the benefit of their ideas. Group discussions and decision-making processes become circular and stale. Sometimes, the group loses the ability to consider entire categories of ideas. In extreme cases, innovators and dissenters may even be shunned—or punished.

Slippery Slope

Every company has its own corporate culture, and all it takes is a few assertive people to dominate it. Whether intended or not, this offers fertile ground for the growth of groupthink. If it gets out of hand, we risk becoming stagnant clusters of team players and yes-people afraid to speak our minds and take initiative. The quiet majority of workers toe the company line for fear of losing their jobs…since, in this economy, the company can easily find replacements for the squeaky wheels.

This attitude leads to slow death in the business world because it stifles innovation. Consider what happened to Apple Computers when its Board of Directors forced out co-founder Steve Jobs in the 1980s. It quickly devolved into a typical corporate bureaucracy where groupthink nearly ran the company into the ground. Only the rehiring of Jobs—and subsequent innovations like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad—saved Apple from becoming a footnote in business history.

Steve Jobs, of course, is a special case: while he led by force of personality, he also had the wisdom to allow workers the freedom to be who they were, including introverts like co-founder Steve Wozniak. Wozniak’s late nights spent alone in his garage resulted in the first commercially viable Apple computer. Though he certainly didn’t work completely alone, it was his ability to apply his individual creativity to the project without undue interference that got Apple’s foot in the door of the computing world in the first place. Teaming up with Jobs didn’t hurt either.

Avoiding Groupthink

While you’ve got to have some structure in the workplace, weeding out groupthink is just as important. Managers and team leads should start by providing a suggestion box for the shy to slip their contributions into. In meetings, specifically tell attendees not to slap down new ideas before they have time to mature.

A corporate culture wide open to creativity (and the conditions conductive to it) represents the best of all possible worlds. In this scenario, those who work best in solitude might have access to special rooms where they don’t have to wear noise-canceling earphones just to think (Microsoft has these “quiet rooms”). If this proves unrealistic, telecommuting represents another option for introverts who cherish their creative solitude.

The Bottom Line

To paraphrase the poet John Donne: “no person is an island” in the modern workplace. Collaboration is both a reality and a necessity if a business wants to stay in business. However, when group culture moves into groupthink, flexibility goes out the window. So leave room for the quiet to innovate, and your organization will have an easier time navigating the rapids of modern business.



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