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The Danger of Groupthink

The Danger of Groupthink

Admit it: most of us aren’t really that honest at work. It’s not that we’re all a bunch of liars at heart. But sometimes it’s just easier to keep our mouths shut and our opinions to ourselves rather than risk the consequences and tension that our honesty could create.

I mean, what if you actually told your sound guy what you really thought of his mix? Or what if you told your children’s ministry team that your kids don’t enjoy attending their classes? It’s okay to admit it, we’re afraid of being honest out of sense of self-preservation. Sometimes, it’s not even about the big stuff: “Will they think I’m an idiot if I share my idea?” or “Will I be labeled a complainer if I speak up?” These are all real fears that exist within every organization and every relationship on planet earth. These keep us from being honest and transparent with each other. They keep us from being our real selves.

It’s human nature. Or more accurately, it’s our sinful human nature. Bear with me while I get a little theological for just a second. Remember when sin came into the world and Adam and Eve suddenly became uncomfortable being naked with each other? That’s where this all started. Before sin, they were open and transparent with each other. But after sin, they felt the need to hide their true selves. So they started covering things up.

Lack of transparency and fear that marks so many organizations leads us to groupthink.

Now, this truth has massive implications in every area of our lives. But for time’s sake, let’s just focus on how it affects us at work. This lack of transparency and fear that marks so many organizations leads us to groupthink. Are you familiar with that term “Groupthink”? Here’s the way Wikipedia describes it:

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

In a crazy twist of irony, our desire for harmony—which is a good desire—is often the very thing that keeps us from our success. In other words, our fear of transparency is keeping us from finding the best solutions. But it doesn’t just do damage at an organizational level, because when we work everyday holding back part (I would argue the best part) of ourselves, we go our whole careers not really being who we are. It leaves us feeling unhappy and unsatisfied.

Our fear of transparency is keeping us from finding the best solutions.

So here’s the question: what are the barriers to honest communication in your organization? Because guess what, we all have them and our job as leaders is to actively and aggressively seek out and destroy as many of those barriers as we can. The bad news is that as long as there’s sin in the world, you’ll never be rid of them all. But that mustn’t stop us from giving it our best shot.

Over the past few months, I’ve really been working within our church (Church on the Move) to seek and destroy any barrier to honest communication. I’ve stumbled upon a few guiding principles to help open up those communication lines.

1. Get to know each other.

It sounds crazy, but it’s all too common to work with someone and not really know them at all. Remember that all good relationships are built on trust, and you can’t trust someone you don’t know! Recently, we invested about $2,500 into our staff by buying them all lunch. The only catch was that each person had to go to lunch with at least three other people and one of them had to be someone they didn’t know. The feedback and stories we got after that lunch was amazing. Friendships were formed and misconceptions were corrected all because people got to know each other.

It’s all too common to work with someone and not really know them at all.

2. When you give feedback, is it constructive?

This is one I’ve really had to work on. I’m naturally a negative person and I don’t give out praise easily. I know, I sound like the life of the party, huh? But what I’ve found is that when my feedback is all truth and no grace, I tend to shut people down. This is creating the exact opposite outcome I’m looking for. If I want people to engage, I have to try to build, not just tear down.  Feedback like, “that sucks” or “I thought that song was lame” doesn’t help anyone improve. It’s not that you should be sunshine and roses about everything, but make sure your feedback—even when it’s negative—has a constructive element to it.

When my feedback is all truth and no grace, I tend to shut people down.

3. Direct your feedback at solving problems.

Often the main reason for our lack of honesty is the fear that we’ll unnecessarily hurt someone’s feelings. It’s a legitimate concern, primarily because so many of us take our ideas and our job performance so personally. To criticize a co-worker’s idea is to criticize that co-worker. But the truth is, we are more than the sum of our ideas. If we can find our identity in Christ, and not in our job performance, we’ll be able to see our ideas with a critical eye and arrive at better solutions. I’m always reminding our team that the best idea wins, regardless of who it’s from. This attitude creates a culture around me of openness, because our goal is not to please a person, but rather to find the best solution.

We are more than the sum of our ideas.

4. Just ask!

Most people are hardwired to want to please you. If you ask a co-worker for feedback, most of the time that feedback will be positive. Why? Well, it’s simply because nobody wants to be the one to tell you that your idea sucks. So they tell you what you want to hear. Here’s my advice: start asking different questions. Instead of asking, “Hey, what’d you think?” ask, “Hey, where could it be better?” or, “How do you think we can improve?” If you start asking questions like that—especially in meetings—you’ll probably be surprised at what you hear. You’ll begin to create a culture of creativity and honesty, not just a culture of groupthink.

So, as we close this out, let’s put these principles into practice. How did you like my article? Where could it have been better? Leave your honest feedback in the comments below!

About The Author

Whitney George

Whitney George is the Executive Pastor at Church on the Move in Tulsa, OK. He and his wife Heather have been married for 13 years and have four children.

6 Comments

  1. Josh Webb

    Great article, Whit! Powerful reminder that as we build people up, they’ll ultimately see our honesty as part of the building up process, instead of viewing it as detrimental to their success. I love how Ed Catmull says the candor at Pixar is always mixed with equal amounts of love.

    Reply
  2. David McIntosh

    Great article! There probably is always areas where we can improve on things. One I could suggest is providing more real life practical examples in explaining this truth of honesty.

    Reply
  3. Chris Nall

    That article sucked! I thought it was lame.

    No actually, I wish/pray would be more honest in every interaction/area. If we were in battle, or the stakes were life & death, we’d make more honest choices…oh wait, we ARE in battle & the stakes ARE life & death… In a foxhole, back to back to back, clear communication is key to survival/success. Honesty is hard – but time is short. Sadly, sometimes we DO get labeled ‘not-a-team-player’ or but in the end – everyone wins if we’re HONEST.

    Reply
  4. Steve Witwicki

    Good job highlighting this issue. I just forwarded several web articles last week to some of my colleagues regarding the pitfalls of brainstorming and collective thinking to arrive at major decisions or improve creativity and most spoke to this issue of honesty and transparency. It’s especially true when in a group there are some “power” figures present who make their views known—not everyone is comfortable voicing an alternative view. Not sure if I can embed links here but those articles are easy to find and are from fastcompany.com, forbes.com, and psycholgytoday.com. One other work that I might suggest regarding your topic is that of VitalSmarts like the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability. We did the former as a staff study recently and are already seeing some improvements in our culture. I especially resonated with your 2nd point. As the creative person on staff, it’s not helpful when folks tell me they don’t like a particular design or layout I create and don’t provide anything constructive to help give me an idea of they DO want.

    Reply
  5. Karen Dance

    We must consider that often times honesty and transparency can become a license for folks to indulge the sinful nature and make their own thoughts and desires the center. Our “me-focused” culture constantly inundates us with the message that all of our thoughts and impulses are always worthy of sharing. My own tastes and style do not always need to be catered to. Sometimes when I think, “Gee, that song (or song-set) sucked,” I must rebuke my sinful pessimism and reorient myself to the gospel and the purpose of the church, which is not so much about me, but about the bride of Christ….and He desires for his bride to have unity….and a certain form of “group-think.”
    I appreciate the concept of looking at different points of view- that is how the different parts of the body of Christ work together to accomplish his purposes. I also agree that criticism must be constructive to produce any positive effect. I am sure we have all been in meetings or situations where “honesty” is nothing more than a gripe session.
    I also like your concept of directing feedback to solve problems. As a pastor’s wife and worship leader, I can’t count how many times we have sat and listened to criticisms from people who express no interest in the opportunity to become part of the solution.

    Reply
  6. Mike

    Great points Whitney. It reminded me of the ice cream principle (see below). While it’s talking about brainstorming and creativity rather than feedback (though there are many overlaps), it’s basically stating that when too many people are weighing in on something, they inevitably end up at a safe place than someplace that pushes the limits.

    http://www.idapostle.com/ice-cream-principle/#.U_tQVwLQ0mo.twitter

    Reply

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