Avoiding the problems of groupthink

August 7, 2017 by Kurt Zinser

Ask the leadership team of any organization and they will tell you that making difficult decisions is part of the job. One word they often love and hate is “strategy”. My co-founder, Jian, wrote a blog about how the paralysis of analysis can kill strategy and how to avoid that. Jian referenced an oft quoted phrase that resonated with readers and myself personally. That was: “culture eats strategy for lunch”.

As a co-founder and the “human side” of our data science startup, I talk and consult daily with many of our users from both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. I have seen a similar phenomena that can make a big impact on workplace culture—groupthink. Let me explain.

Reaching consensus amongst a team of people is a frequent approach when deciding which fork in the road to take. While involving everyone in the decision process seems the right way, group-based decision making is under the influence of many hidden dynamics and social behaviors that can impact the chosen path. For example, have you ever been in a meeting where the team went along with the opinion from the loudest voice in the room? Maybe you didn’t fully agree with that opinion but you went along with what seemed to be the consensus. Looking back, regardless of whether those decisions led to good results, you probably didn’t feel that great about the process. This group driven dynamic is a classic form of - groupthink.

“Groupthink” as a term was coined in 1952 by William H. White, who is a noted urbanist and organizational analyst. He referred to it as “as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”

About 20 years later, research at Yale by Irving Janis revealed how “groupthink” takes place. He observed that a group of people striving to reach agreement will often set aside their own individual beliefs and go along with the prevailing opinions amongst the group. This seems to happen when individuals are concerned that their beliefs will disrupt the group or if their unique opinions might cause members of the group to reject them.

While Groupthink can help bring quick consensus among a large group and also allow for the fast and efficient completion of tasks, groupthink can be problematic. In particular, if the group’s discussion and debate towards consensus is not based on an accurate assessment of the where things stand to begin with. When there isn’t solid, factual data to reference, then the debate of opinions is all there is to go by, biases will prevail.

Just collecting a lot of data is not enough either. To know “where we are” requires collecting information and insight that is clear, focused and accurate. Comprehensiveness and quality are the goals. Quantity by itself is not.

For example, let’s look at last year’s U.S. Presidential election - specifically how the two major political party candidates were scored during their campaigns. Loads of polling data was collected about political issues: immigration, terrorism, racial relations, education, healthcare, globalization, sexisum/women, climate change, economy, jobs, national security, tax, law, abortion, etc. … Based on the scores, models were built, predictions made. But in the end virtually no one predicted the outcome correctly.

Why? They simply collected voter opinions on the issues, but missed a key piece, without which they had no clarity — they also needed to know which issues were the top priorities to the voters in all states.

Short-circuiting this crucial step of gaining clarity through priority will cause immense problems down the pipeline of decision making. Leaving too many trivial items (that may sound important) on the table will only mislead your team’s strategy for development and execution.

We built Survature to provide the best data and analytics to help you answer “where you are”. It not only tells you what people are saying, but also the target group’s priorities based on their psychological behavior. Survature can tell you the “why” behind “where you are”, and that is a huge information advantage.

Survature does so by leveraging advancements in digital interaction and applied psychology to reveal the “intuitive” nature of people’s opinions by observing their behavior as they interact with Survature’s unique survey experience. This additional dimension of data is better at measuring the saliency of a group’s top-of-mind priorities then they could tell you themselves.

Don’t believe us? We’d love to give you a demo and demonstrate how we are helping Fortune 500s make better business decisions when it is necessary to base those decisions on the accuracy and relative importance of a group’s opinions.

Kurt Zinser is the Chief Experience Officer for the interface and user experience of Survature's products as well as its marketing and promotion. Over the past 11 years, he has built an award winning freelance practice specializing in interactive, print and identity design. He has lead the creative process on projects for Fidelity Investments, Harvard University, and the Knoxville Museum of Art. Kurt received his BFA from the University of Tennessee.