Groupthink: How Great Organisations Go Extinct

Groupthink: How Great Organisations Go Extinct

Is there a possibility that the sub-optimal performance or even the demise of some organizations were supervised by an unhealthy phenomenon called groupthink?

Ask the former employees of most dysfunctional or non-performing or extinct companies the bane of behind their fate. You will be surprised they had many unexplored solutions that also died with the company without even being suggested. Me too, a former employee of a now defunct company, can affirm this fact. We saw the demise coming.

Most dead, dying or non-performing organizations are ‘blessed’ with employees who have reservations they could not express. They could tell ‘the road not taken’ by the leadership that led to the fall, but they didn’t tell the leadership when it would have salvaged. This is so because the kind of culture and leadership of an organization can determine the prevalence of groupthink.

Groupthink is a concept introduced by Irving Janis (1972) to describe extreme consensus seeking tendencies in decision-making groups. According to him, it is detrimental to effective decision-making in that “concurrence seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.

Blackberry, Nokia and Yahoo all dominated their markets and then, within a very short time, they lost their market leadership status. Success in business is not final; it requires continuous innovativeness, reinvention and reckless creativity. Simply getting to the top is not as important as ensuring that you stay there, conscious of the restlessly dynamic terrains of business.

One important snag, in the public domain, believed to have led to the ousting of these aforementioned market top dogs is a refusal to diversify or reinvent programs or create novelty that excites customers’ expectations. Organisations so easily relax and get comfortable doing the same because it has worked for them over the years. They age-old adage; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it has become their stereotype.

Yes, we don’t need to push our way into complex structures though; we shouldn’t, at the same time, stifle our affinity to reinvention. When you are successful as an organization, you probably are able to steal the limelight from an older company; have you queried yourself why other companies cannot ‘steal the show’ from you too? Millennial entrepreneurs are continuously disruptive of existing order in the marketplace; such that, the era of armchair approach to competition has increasingly thinned out. If you are not disrupting, you are vulnerable to being disrupted.

The idea is that organizations should not get too comfortable as is the case of Blackberry, Yahoo and Nokia. It’s a great idea to restlessly find out new ways to better what is currently done or change the industry narratives entirely. Organisations that will change the narratives are not those that nurture groupthink.

Groupthink is symptomatic of an organization suffering from ‘destination disease’. In such organisations, the team is boxed by the leadership to think in a particular way while rejecting robust contributions to organizational growth. CEOs owe the organizations they lead the duty to steer the companies away from doom while ensuring their continued profitability and relevance. They will only do this through the team they lead.

In general, groupthink leads to bad decisions due to lack of opposition, creativity and innovation. Yeah, creativity is stifled and overall profitability is negatively affected. This is because, optimal solutions to problems; such as reviewing customer complaints and taking proactive steps to address them when sales revenue drop is noticed, may be overlooked. When solutions are proffered, they hardly can address identified problems because all alternatives are not considered.

Most leadership styles, in organizational settings, unwittingly entrench this psychological phenomenon known as ‘groupthink’. It sets in when a team values concord and consistency of opinion over robust, accurate analysis and critical thinking of individual members in an organization. Members in an organization already clawed by groupthink are unable to express their own thoughts and concern and unquestioningly follow the words of the leader. Groupthink occurs when the pursuit of agreement among team members becomes so dominant that it stifles any realistic appraisal of different courses of action. This occurs when the pressure for harmony among teammates prevents them from realistically evaluating and considering other options. In an attempt to maintain consensus, team decisions becomes hasty and irrational; such decisions hardly bring about a positive outcome.

If the above scenario exists in any organization or unit within a system, then the saddle is in the hands of an insensitive and autocratic leader or manager. To build a healthy team and organization free from groupthink symptoms, leaders should treat all team members equally and maintain distinct relationships with different members. When leaders do not treat all the members of the team equally and maintain distinct relationships with different members, ingroups and outgroups are formed within a team which negatively affects group cohesiveness. The leaders should establish an atmosphere suitable for the expression of both feelings and ideas.

To avert groupthink, leadership must embrace team diversity and the diversity of viewpoints within the team while also promoting a culture of broad enquiry into different possible ways to resolving issues. This way, freedom engenders robust contributions that drives organizations innovativeness.


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