Here we discuss the perils of groupthink, through the lens of good teamwork. A few years ago I wrote an article about the pioneering work of management theorist Meredith Belbin and his groundbreaking insights into what makes a good team. I drew particular attention to one of his most revealing findings, the paradox of the so-called “Apollo Team”.
Belbin discovered this quirk in the course of his trailblazing “business games”, which he used to analyse management teams in action. He bestowed the Apollo Team title on the group boasting the best-qualified and seemingly most brilliant members.
According to Belbin’s taxonomy of team roles, the Apollo Team was packed with “specialists” – highly focused, unusually dedicated individuals with in-depth knowledge. It was presumed this group was inherently equipped to outperform all others.
But the presumption proved spectacularly mistaken. The Apollo Team actually underperformed. Belbin duly surmised that a team full of specialists might be anything but special – for the simple reason that every team requires multiple components to function to best effect.
Belbin thus made an early case for what we now know as diversity of thought – the notion that a variety of perspectives can be pivotal to an organisation’s success. In tandem, he also argued against one of the most perilous phenomena in the business world: groupthink.
William H Whyte coined the term “groupthink” in 1952, when he was a writer for Fortune magazine. He described the concept as a philosophy that “holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well”.
At around the same time, at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, a researcher named Solomon Asch was conducting what would become one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology. The results demonstrated the startling extent to which social pressure can influence an individual’s decisions.
Asch asked his experiment participants to examine three straight lines and state which was the closest in length to a fourth. Although the answer was utterly obvious, many participants were unaware that most of their fellow subjects were stooges who had been primed to respond incorrectly.
Approximately a third of unwitting participants gave an answer that was manifestly wrong. They subsequently said they feared being ridiculed or seen as “peculiar” if they expressed what they truly believed. They felt it was better simply to conform.
Around two decades later, at Yale University, psychologist Irving Janis explored the impact of extreme stress on cohesiveness. According to his findings, groupthink arises from “a deterioration in mental efficiency, reality-testing and moral judgements” and is likely to promote “illusions of invulnerability”.
Blinkeredness and overconfidence
The curse of groupthink has since been used to explain apparently unthinking conformity in settings ranging from boardrooms to cults. Janis even blamed it for political fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.
It has been accused of contributing to the Challenger space-shuttle disaster, the global financial crisis, the sudden collapse of Swissair and BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is also said to be central to the “hive mind” mentality of social media.
Each of these instances can be framed as a collective rush to judgement – a question of decision-makers somehow failing to arrive at inferences they would have reached as individuals. It’s the stuff of total blinkeredness and dangerous overconfidence.
As philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon observed hundreds of years ago, humans are quick to look for validation of their own opinions and predisposed to “neglect and despise” everything else. This tendency is nowadays widely known as confirmation bias.
Anyone who has taken part in a business meeting is likely to be familiar with such an outlook. Dissenting voices – if there are any at all – are frequently ignored in favour of advancing a certain agenda. In the words of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger tragedy, “a culture of ‘go’” prevails.
Calamitous conformity versus healthy disagreement
It’s interesting to note that Belbin named his Apollo Team with NASA in mind. NASA was viewed as the supreme hotbed of exceptional expertise at the time – but, as the Challenger catastrophe cruelly underlined some years later, expertise alone isn’t enough.
The true ideal lies in assembling a team with numerous ways of thinking. The alternative might produce quick-fire consensus and plenty of cordial meetings, but it’s by no means guaranteed to produce results.
In my previous article I mentioned Linus Pauling, a double Nobel Prize winner, and his celebrated quote about ideas. Allow me to repeat it here: “If you want to have good ideas then you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.”
Janis put it like this: “The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a group, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink.”
The lesson: there’s nothing wrong with healthy disagreement, so don’t conform just for the sake of a quiet life. Fight your corner when necessary, because every decision should withstand critical scrutiny. The chances are that your organisation and its stakeholders will thank you in the end.
David Falzani MBE is a Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE) and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.
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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.