Group think: the 8 symptoms

Sometimes I find there is so much going on in the world, I simply can’t decide what to write about. But applying a bit of mental self-discipline, there is one topic that both fascinates and horrifies me… Group Think.

I’ll talk a bit in a minute about the workplace, but firstly, it’s not surprising that when thinking about Group Think, ISIS comes immediately to mind. How can so many people appear so deluded about the realities of both life and religion? How can you murder in the name of religion? How can you rape in the name of religion? How can you sleep at night when you have spent the day treating other human beings like animals? How can you justify terrorism in the name of religion?

In fact, which of the major religions of the world is, at its heart, about barbarism and slaughter rather than peace and understanding? Islam certainly isn’t. In fact, the very essence of Islam is about peace and the traditional greeting of both friends and business acquaintances is ‘Peace be upon you’ السلام عليكم

So just how can a group of people justify inciting such hatred and harming so many people in order to promote its own interests? The irony, of course, is that whilst so many of us are appalled, horrified and disgusted by ISIS, just how different are ISIS Group Think behaviours to the Group Think behaviours we have witnessed in recent years in some of the corporates, in government, in the public sector, even in the charity sector and indeed at times, in our own families and friendship groups?

To outsiders, Group Think is about delusion, total utter delusion about what is or is not moral, right, appropriate or fair etc. To Group Think insiders, Group Think is about a mutual agreement, mutual understanding, mutual support, a shared vision and/or passion. Both groups polarised by the thinking that ‘they are right, whilst others are wrong’.

Perhaps a little trite, but I do like the following quote:

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

George Carlin

Of course, Group Think is often perpetuated by highly intelligent and/or well-educated people. I have also seen it perpetuated by those I would consider highly moral people and people with strong values. Those who could be, and perhaps should be, the pillars of our society. But the ‘stupidity’ occurs when those people all band together and then eliminate from the group those who do not, or who are not seen to, fit in. It’s the exclusion or suppression of those who do not think alike that create Group Think and cause ‘stupidity’.

There is another great quote: ‘When all think alike, then no one is thinking’. (Walter Lippman) Does that resonate with you? Have you seen that recently in your own workplace or family?

It was illustrated in a great book I read a few years ago is The Hundred Year Old Man who Jumped out of the Window and Disappeared. It’s a really clever, funny book by Jonas Jonasson. The old man escapes from his care home in an attempt to be his own person, make his own decisions and do his own thing away from the constraints of what is expected of, or dictated to, him.

But let me take a moment for the researchers and reflectors amongst you, to talk about Janis. Irving Janis, a social psychologist, and pioneer of research into Group Think, coined the term in 1972. He documented eight symptoms of groupthink which may help you begin to think about how Group Think applies in your own life or workplace:

Type I. overestimation of the group. Including:

  • Illusion of invulnerability
  • belief in group‘s inherent morality

Type II. Closed mindedness. Including:

  • Collective rationalization
  • Stereotypes of out-groups

Type III. Pressure toward uniformity. Including:

  • Self-censorship
  • Illusion unanimity
  • Direct pressure on dissenters
  • Self-appointed mind guards

So, in the workplace, how do we witness these 8 symptoms of Group Think and what is the impact of Group Think on how successful, or otherwise, our organisations are?

  • Do you have a leadership team who all think alike? If they do, you can be sure that ‘no one is thinking’.
  • Do you have a team within your business where everyone is like minded, like aged, same skin colour, ethnic origin etc? If you do, you can be sure that ‘no-one is thinking’.
  • Do you have a work group that enjoys the same banter, or that lives and breathes the work or that has worked together for years and years or that has a culture so strong that all else is excluded? If so, you can be sure that ‘no-one is thinking’.

And finally… if Group Think results in a total lack of ‘independent thinking’ how will the Group Think you can identify today in your own organisation, impact the long-term success of your organisation?

For more information, workshops and training materials on this topic, please do get in touch. It’s a fascinating topic and key if we are to understand many of the blockages to both progress and development that we face in business.

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