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  • Alessandra Corrêa

Some tips for identifying and avoiding groupthink.

The Challenger, the space shuttle that exploded seconds after launch on January 28, 1986, killing all crew members and Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who would be the first civilian to travel outside Earth, is a famous case of groupthink in which it is possible to identify the presence of all the symptoms of this phenomenon that can be so damaging. Analyses revealed that the explosion was caused by the failure of an "O-ring" due to the low temperature to which it was exposed. According to investigations, there were flaws in the decision-making process.

On the day before the launch, under extreme pressure (political pressure, public opinion, pressure due to the short time until launch, the financial impact of postponing of the launch, etc.), the engineers and managers of NASA and Morton Thiokol, the company that supplied the O-rings, met to decide whether it was safe to make the launch.

The engineers at Morton Thiokol proposed delaying the launch until the temperature rose over 11.67°C (53°F). The recommendation was met with hostility by NASA, which contacted Morton's team and requested that the Morton team reconsider their recommendation.

In response to this reaction, Morton staff requested a few minutes to meet, reassess the available information and make a decision. Under pressure, Morton's team changed their recommendation. The launch had been authorized.

When in a leadership position, one of our responsibilities is to pay attention to how decisions are being made and what biases may be affecting that process. Caution must be increased if we are making strategic and highly impactful decisions, or when we are in a negotiation process, because this requires a series of decisions that will affect not only the next steps of the process but its outcome.

Decision-making processes are full of nuances and points of attention. When decisions are made in groups, which most significant and influential decisions are, groupthink is a critical factor to be considered.

Gathering, analyzing, and sharing information; creating options for possible solutions; selecting the solution that will lead the group to its goal, taking into account different perspectives and opinions; implementing the solution chosen; and monitoring its results are all part of group decision-making. Groupthink has a negative impact on all aspects of this process.

Groupthink is defined as "a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible" by Psychology Today. The members of the group do not express any doubts or disagreements in this situation. When you disagree with the group, your sense of belonging is shaken.

Groupthink is not intentional and is not easily detected. It leads the members of the group, among other things, to ignore important information, to put aside critical thinking and ethical values, to focus on the outcome, and to disregard undesirable implications and side effects. Another negative and unfavorable effect of groupthink is that it eliminates the prospect of creativity because there is no way to produce fresh and creative ideas and solutions without challenging conventional wisdom and allowing for the free expression of opposing opinions.

According to scholars Irving Janis, who coined the term "groupthink" in 1972, and Leon Mann, there are various factors that favor the emergence of groupthink:

· High Cohesiveness within the group

· Insulation of the group from outside sources of information

· Lack of methodical procedures for information search and appraisal

· Directive Leadership

· Homogeneity in members’ backgrounds

· A high stress situation with little hope of finding a better solution than the one advocated by the leader.

More recent authors have added:

· Discouraging or punishing disagreements

· High stress and/or short time

· Priority of group identity

· Cold behavior with someone who is not part of the group

It is important to know how to identify groupthink in the groups we belong to. In his study, Irving Janis detected eight symptoms:

· Illusion of invulnerability: Believing itself to be a special group, it displays undue optimism, leading to excessive risk-taking without considering the chance of being incorrect.

· Belief in inherent morality of the group: This causes the group to reject the ethical and moral consequences of its decisions.

· Collective rationalization: leads the group to engage in misleading reasoning and minimize warning signs, disregarding data and information that contradict their thesis.

· Stereotypes of outgroups: a "us versus them" mentality that causes the group to have a bad picture of outsiders.: a "us versus them" mentality that causes the group to have a negative image of outsiders.

· Self-censorship: group members do not question and do not communicate divergent ideas or thoughts.

· Illusion of unanimity: Leads the group to believe that the majority's viewpoint is shared by everyone in the group.

· Direct pressure on dissenters: Members of the group are pressured not to challenge the group's thinking and not to express ideas, views, and reasoning contrary to the group’s ideas.

· Self-appointed mind guards: Self-appointed mind guards: group members protect the group from information that contradicts or questions what has been decided.

In addition to paying attention to the conditions that favor groupthink and its symptoms, in order to identify whether the group to which we belong is a victim of groupthink, it is also important to pay attention to our emotions, actions, reactions, and how and why we come to them.

Some questions, when answered, can help us recognize groupthink: Do I feel pressured and, as a result, withhold my opinions and self-censor? Am I afraid of being ridiculed or despised for my opinions? Do I punish colleagues who express their opinions or question the group's ideas? Do I put pressure on fellow members to back down and agree with the group's opinion? Do I and other members of the group automatically agree with the group's viewpoints? Do we perceive the group as invulnerable? Was the decision truly unanimous, or were dissenting members pressured to conform to the group's thinking?

With regard to other groups or people not belonging to our group, we may ask ourselves: Do I have a stereotyped view of people from other groups? Do I diminish or despise the ideas and opinions of those who do not belong to the group? Do I see the opponent group as evil, stupid or weak? Do I perceive my group as morally superior to others?

And now we need a strategy so that our group is not a victim of groupthink. Jennifer Mueller, Sarah Harvey, and Alec Levenson decided to study the exceptions and see what attitudes are adopted by groups that stimulate new ideas and creative solutions. These are, in order:

1. Challenging the status quo.

2. Adopt a temporary solution.

3. Celebrate the progress towards a final agreement.

We have a natural tendency to resort to standard or previously used solutions in similar situations. Besides being less laborious, it is less risky to stay close to the status quo. After all, how could we expect that solution to fail this time when it worked so well before?

By challenging the status quo, we have the opportunity to look at the problem more deeply and from different points of view. This exercise can bring us solutions that meet the needs of more parties involved and are cheaper, more precise, and tailored to our situation.

The researchers refer to the moment when a member of the group questions the status quo as a "trigger" since it starts the creative process of solving the problem at hand.

The following stage is what they called "liminal ideas," in which one of the group members provides a solution that may or may not be definitive but causes the group to think in a concrete way when beginning to examine how that solution can operate, how it would be executed, its costs, and so on. The proposal of a preliminary idea also helps the group begin to find consensus around the principles that can guide the solution.

One of the advantages of treating ideas that emerge as temporary solutions is that this perspective relieves a bit of the pressure that can be paralyzing when what is at stake is very important. Without the commitment that we are dealing with the definitive solution, we allow ourselves to experiment, test different points of view and alternatives.

In a group responsible for solving a problem or developing an important project, we usually seek consensus around the solution or idea to be presented. The delay in building consensus tends to be stressful and discouraging, because in addition to generating uncertainty, we interpret this delay as a lack of progress in the work.

By adopting the strategy of temporary solutions, the group has the opportunity to agree on parts of the issue. For example, it is possible to agree with the definition given to the problem but not yet agree with the solution to be given.

Those moments when agreements are achieved can be seen as progress and should be celebrated as such. By doing so, we are building the trust of the team and its members providing the incentive to continue in the search for the solution.

As in all matters involving self-analysis and self-criticism, we need to be honest and humble in order to be able to make the correct diagnosis and take actions to heal group thinking if we see that our group is a victim of it.

The more careful we take with our decision-making processes, the more likely we are to make a decision that will lead us to a positive outcome. This applies to our personal and professional lives, to series or isolated decisions, to correct decisions or to the most important ones.

It is essential that we ensure that our decision-making process is efficient, that important information is being taken into account, that there is room for contradiction and for questioning.

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