Breaking Through Groupthink with Simple Questions

By: Lou Quinto, Leadership Speaker & Executive Coach, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

How many times have you been in a meeting and have been afraid to say something because you believed it went against what the group was thinking? Or, worse yet, nobody in the meeting spoke up because everyone believed it’s not what the “authority” figure in the meeting desired.

It’s common place and happens far too often. In fact, it can set an organization up for failure or be an impediment to complete success.

This phenomenon is known as Groupthink. The group dynamic syndrome was identified and explained by social psychologist, Irving Janis in 1972. In his book, Victims of Groupthink, Janis outlines what he calls “Eight Symptoms of Groupthink.” In the situations described above, two of those symptoms are occurring. First, Self-Censorship. This is where an individual(s) withhold any doubts and deviations from what is believed to be the group’s perceived consensus. The second symptom is Direct Pressure on Dissenters. This is where members of the group believe that they are under pressure (both real and perceived) not to express arguments against any of the group’s or organization’s views.

In my work assisting clients to resolve problems, to make decisions, and to develop strategy, I have personally witnessed bona fide “subject matter experts” sit quietly while they knew that the group’s final solution, decision or strategy was either extremely risky, or downright wrong. We are social creatures and one of our biggest fears is losing favor amongst our peers or being seen as someone that causes trouble or creates conflict. Therefore, our individual need for acceptance many times trumps what we know is best for the group or are keys necessary for its success. We protect our status by simply providing no opinion at all.

People who lead groups or facilitate meetings need to be keenly aware of this group dynamic. As I always tell my clients, you can’t judge a meeting by how few differences and conflicts the group had, but instead by how many a group had and most importantly how they dealt with or resolved the conflicts. If you had differences and conflicts, then you had a great meeting. If you had none, then I suggest you look in a mirror because you have been blind to potential risks and failures.

The prescription to Groupthink that I offer my clients is a process that I have adapted from several different facilitation techniques. I call it the PIVOTS Maneuver. I coined the phrase from a debating tactic. During a debate a participant might clarify a question or stated position by “pivoting.” This involves listening to others’ opinions, understanding their position, and then finding a common goal in that opinion and convincing them that your solution to achieving the goal is the best by offering facts that are not present or were not considered by the other person.

PIVOTS is an acronym for a series of questions that permit individuals in the group to explore a solution, decision, or strategy from several different perspectives. By asking these questions you are giving permission to everyone to explore and offer answers to those questions in a safe environment. The key phrases in the previous sentence are “giving permission” and “safe environment.” When people believe that they have “permission” to speak up and that there will be no retribution or consequences, only then will they know the environment is “safe” to offer up differing opinions or contradicting facts.

Here are the PIVOTS questions:

P – What are the Positives that can result from our solution, decision or strategy?

I – What additional Ideas do you have regarding this solution, decision or strategy?

V – What Vulnerabilities do you believe the group might face because this solution, decision or strategy?

O – What Opinions – feelings or hunches – does this solution, decision or strategy conjure up in your mind?

T – What Truths — facts — do we know that will support the solution, decision or strategy we are recommending?

S – In moving forward with this solution, decision or strategy; what are our potential next Steps or required actions?

Next time you’re leading a meeting and you detect Groupthink to be setting in, call a time out and lead the group through these questions one-by-one and record every answer on a whiteboard or a flip chart so that everyone can see them. By PIVOT-ing, the symptoms of Groupthink will evaporate because you have encouraged the group members to turn over every stone and to explore every objection, fact or opinion. This facilitation technique can be successful to help “neutralize the intimidator” in the room and to also crack away at a silo-like or authoritarian culture that might exist throughout the entire organization.

About the Author:

Lou Quinto has over 20 years of experience in employee development, management training, executive coaching, and consulting with expertise in teaching managerial skills, critical thinking skills, professional presentation skills, and motivational speaking. His style of training and consulting is described by clients as engaging, motivating, and productive, making him a popular choice for conducting seminars, management retreats, and executive coaching sessions. Lou is a graduate of Purdue University and resides in Indianapolis, IN.