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***For Karl McCracken's personal (mainly triathlon) blog, please visit This blog is an alternative way for you to get access to our TeamTips series of articles. TeamTips is a short, fortnightly article that's aimed at TeamLeaders. Each edition covers a subject that's important for Team Leaders' performance - both in technical issues and man-management.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Groupthink: Is Too Much Team Spirit A Bad Thing?

Strong, cohesive teams deliver better results than any of their individual members could alone. This is true in situations where you have specialists who are good at certain parts of the task, and where you have a group of generalists, each of whom is just doing their best to help the team.

However, teams have to interact with the ‘outside world’. That can mean other parts of the organisation, or elements outside of it - customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

If they don’t have this outside ‘reality check’, there’s a serious risk that the team’ll develop an false image of the ‘world’, their role in it, and their task at hand. Examples from history include:
  • US failure to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour
  • Labour’s radical socialist agenda in the 1980’s
  • The Challenger space shuttle disaster
  • The capsize and sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise
In each of these examples, the teams involved were convinced that they were doing the right thing. Yet with hindsight, it’s obvious that they were making severe errors of judgement. Even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, the urge to conform to the group’s accepted view prevented individuals from voicing concerns. And even if they had, there was a strong chance that the concerns would have been ignored.

This phenomenon is called GROUPTHINK, and it’s the dark side of effective, cohesive team structures. It is especially prevalent when a team has to perform a complex, unstructured task - like making decisions with information from several sources.

If you can avoid GROUPTHINK in your team, the chances are that you’ll make better decisions, even if those decisions involve taking a painful step into the unknown.

Seven Tips To Avoid Groupthink

1. Avoid Feeling Invulnerable

Past performance is no guarantee of future success. Yet teams often take extreme risks, acting as if their previous successes will continue to shield them. As Team Leader, avoid this by encouraging members to openly express any doubts.
2. Don’t Assume The Moral High Ground
Teams members can believe that as ‘good’ people, they can’t make ‘bad’ decisions. This is usually part of a desire to be seen to share the leader’s opinions, so as Team Leader, try to voice your opinions last.
3. Avoid Stereotypes
Members can dismiss contrary evidence based on its source (’he’s saying that because he’s weak / stupid / out to get us’), so try to bounce information off another team, and see if they reach the same conclusion as yours.

4. Control Direct Pressure to Confirm
Look out for the use of verbal, non-verbal, or other sanctions against members who voice opinions against the group norm. For important decisions, divide into sub-groups, and see if both reach the same conclusion.
5. Look Out For Silence

Team members can often censor their own opinions if these differ from the way the group seems to be going. Encourage people to discuss the task with trusted outsiders.

6. Has EVERYONE Really Agreed?

In larger groups, the more vocal individuals tend to come to the fore - often in agreement, and effectively drowning out any nay-sayers. Invite trusted outsiders to join the group periodically to restore the balance.

7. Beware of The ‘Thought Police’
Certain team members can take it upon themselves the be the ‘guardians of truth’, screening uncomfortable information from the outside. Appoint a team member as ‘devil’s advocate’ to counter this.

What Next
This edition of TeamTips is concerned with the people-management side of Team Leadership. There are three things you can do if you’re interested in finding out more about this:

Read a Book
We recommend “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” by Patrick Lencioni. It’s a real page-turner (for a management book), and is available from the site.

Read Our In-Depth Management Briefing Paper on team management.
We publish a series of more detailed papers - just visit and click on the ‘free stuff’ button.

Call Sevenrings
We’ve helped dozens of individuals and organisations make better use of information, and we’d be happy to talk to you about your particular situation at no initial charge.

We specialise in helping people to get better results by changing the way they work. We can provide training from 1/2 day taster sessions focusing on just one aspect of the Team leader’s role, up to comprehensive programmes over several months.

Our phone number is 0044 191 2522 335, or you can always email: karlATsevenringsDOTcoDOTuk

Finally . . .
You can also download this article on groupthink as a one-page pdf, formatted for easy printing. And the podcast version should be available from 28th June:
Click to download the audio version of this edition of TeamTips


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