How groupthink can damage your organization

Welcoming differences of opinion leads to stronger decision-making.
By Courtney L. Vien

Groupthink—the tendency of groups to make decisions that preserve the status quo rather than take dissenting opinions into account—can be toxic to teams and organizations. It can stifle innovation and make employees feel pressured to conform. In high-stakes situations, as consultant Joe Gerstandt pointed out in a recent webinar for the AICPA, groupthink can have serious consequences.  

In most cases, the consequences of groupthink aren't nearly so serious. However, groupthink can "compromise your ability to make the best decisions possible," Gerstandt said. Its other downside, he said, "is that it is wasteful of one of our best resources: the mix of personalities and experiences on the payroll."

When groupthink occurs, in other words, the benefits of diversity can be lost. "Diversity means difference," Gerstandt said, and difference "shows up as disagreement," which he calls "the engine that drives a robust decision-making process."

As Anthony Newkirk, Ph.D., senior manager for diversity and inclusion at the AICPA, who moderated the webinar, noted, "Diversity of thought is often overlooked as an element of diversity. However, thinking differently is an important individual characteristic that must be valued in order to avoid the trap of groupthink."

No one intends to participate in groupthink, Gerstandt pointed out. Rather, he said, it occurs because people are uncomfortable with conflict and differing opinions. Welcoming differences, he said, is one key to preventing groupthink.

Groupthink, Gerstandt believes, "is the default state for most teams," but it can be overcome. The best way to do so, he said, is to strive for inclusion, not assimilation. When people become assimilated to a group, they feel like insiders, but they also suppress their uniqueness and conform to the group's norms.

And assimilation, Newkirk observed, "compromises an organization's efforts to achieve true engagement and inclusion." Some degree of assimilation is necessary for groups to function. However, a more ideal state is one of inclusion: a state in which members feel they belong to a group but retain their uniqueness.

To foster inclusion, question your group's unspoken rules. Many organizations' stated values, Gerstandt observed, conflict with their tacit beliefs. For example, a firm or company might claim to value work/life balance. But if CPAs worry they'll be seen as underachievers if they leave work before 7 p.m., work/life balance will remain elusive.

Gerstandt recommends three questions to help you uncover your team's or organization's unspoken rules:

  • "Is it safe to be unpopular?"
  • "Is there a penalty for candor?"
  • "Are there things we do not discuss?"

To ward off groupthink, it's vital to be intentionally inclusive, Gerstandt said, noting that "if you do not intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude."

One way to become more inclusive is to become aware of your conscious and unconscious biases. "Examine your thoughts and feelings when interacting with someone," Gerstandt recommended. "Ask yourself, 'Do I know this or do I think I know this?" Then, he said, "own your bias, challenge it, and change your associations."

Though it can be uncomfortable to face your biases, it's helpful to realize that all of us are biased; the term simply means making judgments without questioning them. Gerstandt also noted that your biases aren't an indicator of your moral worth. "We have correlated biases with character, values, and aspirations," he said. "But it's not true."

Finally, having the courage to offer a dissenting option can also help your team avoid groupthink. "If we are unique, a day will come when we are the heretic, the outlier, the voice of dissent," Gerstandt said. "That's a good thing." But, he cautioned, our group's "climate needs to be safe for that to happen."

View archived diversity and inclusion webcasts from the AICPA.

Courtney Vien is an associate editor for the AICPA.

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