The 3 Causes of Groupthink + How It Hurts Your Business

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What are the causes of groupthink? How is groupthink related to having a fixed mindset? Is there any way to avoid or prevent groupthink?

Groupthink is a term popularized in the 1970s for situations where everyone thinks alike. No one disagrees, raises issues, or criticizes.

A drawback of a fixed mindset in CEOs and organizations is groupthink. It can lead to disastrous decisions. Learn why, and if there’s any way to avoid groupthink.

Causes of Groupthink

These are the causes of groupthink:

  • Cause of groupthink #1: People put blind faith in a brilliant or charismatic leader. For example, blind faith in President John F. Kennedy led to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Kennedy’s advisers were so smitten with him that they had total faith in his ability and luck. Had just one person opposed the plan, Schlesinger believes Kennedy would have called it off.
  • Cause of groupthink #2: People in a group are enamored with the group’s genius. Enron executives believed that because they were so smart, their ideas must be smart too. They felt infallible. 
    • Aside: In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus wrote that the Persians had a unique way of avoiding groupthink. When a group reached consensus while sober, they later reconsidered it while drunk.
  • Cause of groupthink #3: People are afraid to object because a fixed-mindset leader punishes dissent. For example, because Iacocca got rid of critics, people were afraid to speak up. In contrast, Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard once gave an employee a medal for defying him for the good of the company.

When making important decisions, it’s essential to be in a growth mindset because it fosters full discussion of both positives and negatives, resulting in better decisions.

The Primary Cause of Groupthink

The mindset of a company’s leader is a key determinant of whether a company fails or succeeds. The company’s leader is one of the primary causes of groupthink.

Fixed-Mindset Leaders and the Causes of Groupthink

In Jim Collins’ study of great companies in his book Good to Great, he found that the average companies that he included for comparison typically had CEOs with fixed mindsets. 

Fixed-mindset CEOs believed they were geniuses who didn’t need a strong executive team, just underlings to implement their ideas. This is one of the major causes of groupthink. These CEOs needed to be the big fish and to feel superior to everyone else.

Managing the Praised Generation

Groupthink isn’t the only consequence of companies that exhibit leaders and employees with fixed mindsets. When children who are praised for their talent and intelligence grow up and join the workforce, they can be challenging employees. They demand constant affirmation and can’t tolerate mistakes or critical feedback. Like the causes of groupthink, the praised generation is a consequence of fixed mindsets.

Some companies have responded by giving monthly or quarterly bonuses instead of yearly bonuses, and by providing an array of perks and morale-boosting events to make employees feel valued. 

A better approach would be to maintain a growth-oriented work environment emphasizing that it’s everyone’s responsibility to learn and develop personally and to help grow the company. Managers also must teach the growth mindset to employees — for instance, by giving rewards for taking initiative rather than having the smartest idea, for overcoming an obstacle or setback, or for applying criticism and improving.

Effective Training

In addition to the causes of groupthink, ineffective training can also result from fixed mindsets. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach managers how to coach and motivate employees, but it has little impact. The reason may be that many managers don’t believe people can change. Studies show that they look for talent first and foremost, trust their first impressions, and make little effort to develop employees. Many don’t notice when employees do improve.

In contrast, growth-oriented managers view talent as a starting point to build on. They believe in developing themselves and their employees and notice improvement. Managers can be taught this mindset. Without a belief in development, training in feedback and boosting performance accomplishes little.

A Growth-Minded Culture

A company’s mindset has a strong effect on employee efficacy and morale. Growth cultures can help mitigate the causes of groupthink. Researchers found that employees in growth cultures:

  • Had a greater sense of trust and empowerment.
  • Were more committed, loyal, and willing to go the extra mile for the company. In contrast, employees in fixed-minded cultures had a greater interest in leaving.
  • Believed the company supported innovation and risk-taking.
  • Had supervisors with a positive view of employees as collaborative, committed to improvement, and having management potential.

Grow Your Mindset: Tips

  • Whether your workplace has a fixed or growth-minded culture, you can contribute positively. Think about how you can be less defensive and apply feedback. Look for ways to learn.
  • Think about how you interact with others. As a boss, are you focused on being superior or developing your employees? How do you react when employees outshine or challenge you? Look for ways to develop yourself and your employees.
  • Is your company culture susceptible to groupthink and therefore prone to bad decisions? What are some ways to promote contrary or alternative viewpoint — for instance, appointing someone to play devil’s advocate?

The causes of groupthink are often tied to a fixed mindset. Develop a growth mindset, and encourage it in your company, to avoid groupthink.

The 3 Causes of Groupthink + How It Hurts Your Business

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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