A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
March 16th, 2013 by William

The Groupthink Syndrome

The Groupthink Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group environment, in which there’s an overpowering need for reaching consensus which results in snap judgments and decision-making without proper research. In the group’s overzealous goal to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision they will many times ignore critical data, and alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by doing so become ineffective at their given task.  A major reason for this phenomenon is due to the fact that all people are somewhat conflict averse thus they will avoid any potential controversy by not voicing their true opinions. This failure of the members to question the path the group might be taking or to bring up new alternatives is what dooms the group to ineffectiveness. Unfortunately, Groupthink can affect all levels of organization from teams on the manufacturing floor to executive management teams.

Groups infected with the Groupthink Syndrome see loyalty to the group as their number one duty and as such will avoid any situation that jeopardizes their inclusion in the group. Pleasing the group is the path of least resistance. In groups such as this the result is a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking and thus the chance for any new ideas to cultivate.

Groupthink is just another of the many dysfunctional behavior patterns that can affect the modern workplace. It can overtake meetings or any group get-together that has convened to decide on a course of action or to make a decision. Many times one person will take control and their opinion/views will become that of the group without challenge from anyone.

There’s also a more damaging side to this syndrome. The dysfunctional group dynamics at work in this syndrome produce in the members an illusion that they are above criticism and that their decisions are the only right ones. Groupthink can cause the group to significantly overrate their own abilities thus falling prey to “The Halo Effect.” When exhibited in the senior management ranks it is the most damaging to the overall organization’s health.

Is your organization prone to groupthink? Here are few symptoms indicative of an organization where groupthink can take root:

  • Management overestimates the organization’s capabilities or has illusions of their invulnerability which create excessive optimism about the organization’s future–this causes irrational risk taking without proper vetting–this mindset then trickles down through the organization
  • Management is closed-minded and unable to take criticism that might challenge their power and authority; people are not encouraged to speak up for fear of their jobs–there is a censorship of any doubts in management’s abilities
  • Management’s market-driven requirement to focus almost exclusively on short-term financial performance at the expensive of the future growth of the organization. They choose paths that do not detract from short-term financial performance, and ignoring one’s that may cost more but benefit the organization more in the long-run
  • Protected or group fiefdoms exist which are provided sanction by the top management of the organization and as such can do no wrong–all others in the organization are treated as second-class citizens. Whatever the protected fiefdom does, or decisions it makes, by default become the organization’s gospel
  • An organizational culture of blame in which people are chastised if they speak up or question the organization’s strategic plan
  • Organizational Amnesia–the organization seems forever doomed to repeat many problems/situations over and over without ever really resolving the root-cause. They do the same thing over and over somehow expecting a different result.
  • Performance Review process–employees are held to arbitrary standards that do not encourage individualism, creativity, risk taking or empowerment. They become incapable of thinking outside the box

Groupthink can be spawned by any of the symptoms listed above and the result is defective decision-making at all levels in the organization. When groupthink plagues a workplace, decision-making becomes almost a game that paralyzes the organization from growing and reaching its vision. The organization never learns from their mistakes and will continue this pattern until the organization will eventually cease to exist–their relentless race to the bottom.

Groupthink is at work when management teams are thoroughly convinced that their strategy is the only way forward. They will define their vision based on faulty presumptions of who they are, their core competencies, and where they want to go. They then build plans to operate in that universe which ultimately becomes the recipe for failure. After repeated failures at achieving success, they begin to blame external (and internal) forces as the reasons for their failure–this is where a blame-oriented culture finds its roots.

The organizational chart itself can contribute to Groupthink as functional groups are encouraged to have strong group allegiance, seeing themselves as single entities, where cavorting with the enemy (any other group) is frowned upon. The isolated groups begin to make decisions based on their own internal and external world viewpoint, and it’s many times counterproductive to the overall goals of the organization. This behavior is at the heart of what’s called “The Fiefdom Syndrome.”

At the very heart of the Groupthink Syndrome is the irrational concern on the part of the members of the group for the feelings and needs of others–remember “The Co-Dependency Syndrome.”

For an organization to break free of this dysfunctional syndrome change must start at the top levels of management. Top management must set the example by not placing stress on the organization by being fixated on the short-term and on the quick fix for problems that arise, i.e., they must cease constantly preaching and judging the organization on its sense of urgency. This “sense of urgency’ is something that I write about in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw. It manifests itself in what I call the “Chicken Little Syndrome.”

Management must also encourage employee empowerment to make new and innovative suggestions and to constantly question and challenge the organization’s status quo. And to avoid the organizational amnesia curse they must be patient in problem solving allowing the organization to find the best solutions to problems. In business there’s usually no quick fix that solves any problem for good. Management must nurture in all the groups within the organization the need for thoroughness in all that they do and in all the decisions that they make to find the best solutions possible. This will stop groupthink from ever getting a foothold.


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