Groupthink occurs when a group's pursuit of cohesion and conformity limits creativity and diversity, disrupts the group's ability to solve problems and make decisions, and overpowers the morality of individuals within the group.
The situation – rather than individual character traits – becomes the main driver for behaviour, with potentially dangerous consequences.
The term was first defined by psychologist, Irving Janis, in 1972 as:
When does a team become a group? How does the psychology change, and what influence does this have on individual behaviours? How do we guard against ‘groupthink’ when the drive towards uniformity is ingrained in us?
First, let’s look at what we mean by ‘team’ and ‘group’, and what happens when one becomes the other.
The term ‘team’ is a loose one, which might cover: a small project team set up for a specific purpose; a collection of individuals reporting to a particular line manager, or even a whole department.
However, in Belbin terms, a team is considerably smaller than most other approximations. Dr Meredith Belbin claims that the ideal team size is four. Any smaller than this, and it is difficult to achieve diversity of contributions. Much larger, and group behaviours come into play.
The larger the group the greater the tendency towards standardisation, to conformism, to follow the leader, to the cultivation of out-group feelings toward those that don't belong. The smaller team can afford to be more diverse and more tolerant and less compliant towards whoever is reckoned the most senior person.
Working in teams allows for shared or rotated leadership and promotes mutual understanding, since team members can get to know one another as more than just acquaintances.
With these characteristics in mind, how do you harness the power of teams to avoid groupthink? And how can Belbin help?
In theory, when it comes to decision-making, collective is better than individual, owing to the potential for greater diversity. But therein lies the problem. Decision-making is in direct opposition to cohesion. Debating the merits of a particular course of action means exploring opposite points of view and drawing attention to areas of difference.
Remember Dr Belbin’s ideal team size, four? The even number is to ensure that no one person has the casting vote, so the team needs to arrive at decisions by arguing both sides and achieving consensus.
In Belbin terms, the ‘Thinking Roles’ are key here. Monitor Evaluators offer objectivity. They’re likely to take their time to arrive at a decision, but you can be assured that it will be well-considered. Plants are creative, unorthodox and free-thinking. They’re not afraid to suggest change, which makes them a great antidote to conformist groups. Lastly, Specialists can provide expert advice to inform decision-making on a particular topic.
The team’s receptivity – or lack thereof – to these contributions can help diagnose a collective culture that is heading towards groupthink.
Personal convictions and values clearly have a part to play in avoiding groupthink, but the team needs behavioural diversity – distinct Team Role contributions and working styles which represent different approaches to a problem or task.
We’re not claiming that Team Roles are the sole difference between ethical and unethical behaviour, but every group that goes off the rails has to obscure individual difference at some point.
Belbin celebrates and promotes differences instead, and helps individuals find a way to work together.
The Team Role Circle, in the Belbin Team Report, offers an at-a-glance view of diversity within a team or group of up to 15 people.
It’s possible to analyse the spread of Team Roles across Social, Thinking and Action categories, to assess where gaps and overlaps may be leading the team or group towards homogeneity.
Individuals who go against the grain are effective cures for groupthink (whistle-blowers are extreme examples of this), but individuals need to have the courage of their convictions.
By empowering individuals to discover and articulate their strengths and what sets them apart from others, you can help your teams and groups to reclaim individual responsibility, to get to know the different forces operating within the team, and to understand what a source of strength these differences can be.
The Belbin Team report plots the highest-scoring individual for a given Belbin Team Role against the averages for that role.
Where the gap is greatest, the individual in question may well face opposition for playing that role within a group culture.
This information is disseminated along with an obligation to leaders: to safeguard and nurture that opposing voice; to ensure that others understand the value of that contribution, and to put procedures in place to make certain that that view is heard.
What does your organization mean by 'team' and what more could be done to protect the term and distinguish teams from groups? How are you guarding against groupthink and cultivating behavioural diversity, whilst enabling people to work effectively together?
Use the form below to contact us. We'd love to start a conversation to see how we can help your teams.
Please complete this form and we will get in touch.
 Janis, I. L., Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, 1972