Groupthink is a phenomenon that acts as a barrier to good governance. It is a form of self censorship that causes a failure of critical thinking when the desire for group consensus overrides ones ability or desire to critique / challenge a position, present alternatives or express an unpopular opinion. It is often in play when groups reach consensus without critically examining an issue; there is an illusion of agreement or consensus: “it appears as everyone agrees, so let’s move on.”
It occurs when there is a high level of group cohesion or a strong persuasive leader who articulates his or her opinion, especially when the opinion is expressed early in the discussion. It also occurs when groups are isolated from contrary opinions.
Board meetings are perfect breeding grounds for groupthink. After all, healthy boards experience a sense of team and cohesion, and they are often comprised of strong leaders. Paradoxically, this sense of cohesion can cause boards to fail in their fiduciary duty, if they consciously or subconsciously engage in groupthink.
Creating a culture where disagreement and diverse opinions are valued limits the incidence of groupthink. Likewise, encouraging an atmosphere of open inquiry and fostering an open climate of dialogue are important protections. However, there are many more techniques that can be used to protect against groupthink.
- Awareness: Make sure everyone on the board has an understanding and awareness of the causes and consequences of group think. This is a good topic to discuss and an annual board retreat / orientation.
- Challenge Assumptions: Encourage board members to get in the practice of challenging their assumptions and the assumptions of others.
- Encourage Conflict: With practice, the board’s level of comfort with conflict will increase.
- Unpopular Alternatives: Always consider unpopular alternatives.
- Avoid Isolation: Don’t operate in a vacuum; don’t avoid external criticism. When possible, seek out the opinions of people not on the board, especially before final decisions are made on important issues and certainly before decisions are implemented on controversial issues.
- Consider Decision Implications: Engage in an open dialogue about the risks and consequences of the alternatives. Don’t just focus on the positives.
- Critical Evaluators: At the beginning of the dialogue, assign everyone on the board as a critical evaluator. This puts the importance of critical thinking at the forefront and creates an immediate awareness of the groupthink phenomenon.
- Devil’s Advocate: Appoint or ask someone to play the role of Devil’s Advocate for each issue.
- Loyal Opposition: Prior to the board meeting, appoint people to provide loyal opposition at the meeting. Provide them with background information that will prepare them to argue the side of the issue you want them to support. If a recommendation is being made, the loyal opposition argues against the recommendation. If options are being provided, you may want to appoint someone to argue each side of each option.
- Reexamine Rejected Alternatives: Before a final decision is adopted, go back and reexamine rejected alternatives. In doing so, you might ask the question what would have to happen to make this the best alternative?
- Expert Opinion: Bring in an expert who knows the facts. Without introducing opinion, the expert can introduce facts into the conversation. The expert, not being part of the group, will not be impacted by groupthink. Instead, the expert, through the introduction of facts, will act as a critical thinking catalyst.
- Agenda design: Make sure ample time is provided to discuss issues. Put the big issues at the beginning of the agenda, so they can be discussed when the board members are not tired or rushed to leave. If people are tired or rushed, they are more apt to impacted by anchoring or prematurely move to consensus.
- Subgroups or breakouts: Break the board into subgroups or breakouts to discuss issues. Of course, when using breakouts other groupthink protection techniques can be employed as well.
- Six Thinking Hats: Six thinking hats, created by Edward de Bono, is a parallel thinking process that engages, in a systematic way, board members in mindful thinking. The process aids the board in looking at issues clearly and objectively from different angles.
- Leadership Development: As part of leadership development training, board chairpersons should be made aware of their potential impact on group thinking. They should have an understanding of what causes it and what techniques they can use to protect against it.
- Chair Impartiality: Chairpersons should refrain from expressing their opinions about any preferred outcome. It is important that the chair and other leaders appear impartial during discussions.
- Encourage Input: Chairpersons should encourage members to provide input, challenge ideas and present objections. Literally ask for opposing views. Reward the input without making any judgment on the contribution.
If you are interested in reading further, the 8 symptoms of groupthink, as defined by Irving Janis, can be found here.