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Yes I know, I haven’t asked the question yet, but I am assuming you will… agree that is.

Those of you of a certain vintage may remember the irascible Horace Rumpole character from the “Rumpole of the Bailey” television series, who referred affectionately to his wife as “She who must be obeyed”. I have suggested the same to my husband, but he is yet to take me up on it.

As humans we like to be in synch with each other. Research has revealed how our heart rate synchronises with others when we sing in choirs. Women who live together synchronise their menstrual periods. We tend to hang out with, befriend and marry those with whom we share common interests, values and beliefs.

But is this always in our best interests?

Have you ever sat in a meeting that has been dragging on forever, where the ideas are being tossed around and all everyone wants, is just to reach a group decision that will allow everyone to escape and get back to their other tasks?

The chances are, that in this situation, you might be more inclined to go along with whatever is being proposed merely to speed the process up, rather than focusing on the eventual outcome of this decision.

Groupthink is defined as a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people where the desire for conformity or concordance results in an incorrect or deviant decision making outcome. This is because the members of the group look to minimise conflict and reach a consensus decision, without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints.

William H. Whyte Jnr first coined groupthink as a term in 1952 in Fortune magazine, discussing it as a rationalised conformity where the group values are considered expedient right and good. Research into groupthink was pioneered by Irving Janis who referenced groupthink to the newspeak vocabulary as used by George Orwell in his book 1984.

Of course there are times when getting group consensus is essential for any progress to be made, but in positions of leadership, history has pointed out the necessity to avoid groupthink.

Examples of groupthink include the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the business world groupthink has reared its ugly head on a number of occasions as demonstrated by the Lehman brothers, Swissair and Marks and Spencers. Voicing dissent vs. company proposals in some businesses might be viewed as akin to career suicide.

It is easy to get stuck in the “what happened before”, in the belief that our past will predict our future. But sadly, just because your company enjoyed phenomenal growth over the last two years, does not mean that this will necessarily continue to be the case. Up until the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, how many people did you know who expressed the same belief, that the good times were here to stay and nothing would make that change.

I recently listened to a reporter on radio discussing initial American political reaction to the opinion piece written by Vladimir Putin that was published in the New York Times.

“Offensive”, “Sickening”, Insulting”. The reactions were perhaps somewhat predictable. When threatened, our brain’s response is to take up a defensive position. The political response in the main, appeared to be a case of groupthink. Some more measured responses, some even praising Putin’s writing skills came from others who took the time to read the article more carefully and consider it for what it said (or didn’t say) before jumping on the bandwagon.

Without delving into Putin the man, his background or literacy skill, the point is that a challenge to groupthink is important.

The fact that the New York Times chose to publish the article was interesting in itself as their policy is not to normally allow external leaders of foreign countries to publish. It has certainly triggered fresh debate and bought other voices to the table, which perhaps was the purpose of the article in the first place.

Is groupthink alive and well in your organisation?

How does your company deal with group think (if at all)?

What poor business outcomes have you witnessed, that have been the result of groupthink?

Understanding how the brain responds to threat, and developing the skill to effectively engage in active and lively debate, that takes in a wide diversity of views and opinions is essential to effective leadership today.

The “Brain Change” program reveals how you can learn how to better understand your own brain (and the brains of others) so as to promote collaboration, synergy and positive relationships.

By the way, if you haven’t already read the piece, here is the article from the New York Times:


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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