deep dive

Working in Dysfunctional Harmony

Cohesive. Conflict-free. Strategically aligned. This is how you want your workplace to be. Everyone in harmony, working seamlessly towards the same goal, aligning around the same strategy and mindset. An agreeable workplace is a better workplace, right?
Having a workplace where employees get along and work together without conflict may seem ideal, but having a too-high level of cohesion in the workplace can have serious consequences.

Take, for example, the morning of January 28th, 1986. All of America tuned in to watch The Challenger, a NASA space shuttle carrying a schoolteacher and six other passengers up to space. 73 seconds after launch the space shuttle disappeared in a cloud of white smoke, and footage of the explosion headlined news programs for weeks afterwards.

The big question after the explosion was: how could a high-risk organization like NASA, with such tight protocol and regulations, make such a grave mistake that ultimately cost seven passengers their lives? A presidential commission found that the explosion was due to small rubber rings (O rings) failing to expand in cold temperatures, leading to the gas leak. Engineers were aware of the issues with the O rings before launch, but lack of communication and too much strategic alignment in the organization ultimately lead to ignoring the problem. Ultimately, NASA was an organization working in dysfunctional harmony.

Groupthink – Working in Dysfunctional Harmony

This sort of operational failure, wherein extensive problems get pushed under the rug and ignored, has been termed Groupthink. Groupthink refers to a group of people working in “dysfunctional harmony” – agreeing with each other to the point of reaching potentially destructive decisions. Members of a team try to minimize conflict so much that they fail to critically analyze or accept criticism of their choices. They live and breathe the same mental models. The team also becomes unable to accept outside critique, as they are convinced that their perspective and choices are right and good.

“What’s interesting is that many of the factors that contribute to Groupthink have a positive side,” says Anna Ljunggren, Learning Concept Officer at Celemi. “We want our teams to have shared mental models, and we invest in activities that strengthen the cohesion of groups. The trick is to maintain a balance. While we strive for alignment, we still need to invite a diversity of opinions and ideas.”

Groupthink can be deadly, like it was for the seven Challenger passengers, and can also have severe financial consequences for an organization, like it did for Swissair. Swissair was, until its collapse in 2002, believed to be one of the most financially stable airlines in the world. However, it bore many of the symptoms of Groupthink, which eventually led to the airline collapsing and declaring bankruptcy.

What, then, are these symptoms of Groupthink, and how can you learn to avoid them in the workplace?

Recognizing the Symptoms of Groupthink

Research psychologist Irving Janis identified the eight symptoms of Groupthink, which are a strong indicator of an organization working in Groupthink:
Illusions of invulnerability. Members of the group are too optimistic and start behaving riskily.
Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group. Group members ignore the consequences of their actions and possible moral dilemmas.
Group members rationalize their decisions to the point of ignoring warning signs.
Members of the group ignore or even demonize the opinions of anyone outside of their group, considering them to be weak, evil, biased, or stupid.
Self-censorship. People hide their doubts and misgivings in the group.
“Mindguards.” Self-appointed censors of the group, who hide problematic information.
Illusions of unanimity. Silence is viewed as a form of agreement.
Direct pressure. Group members who do not conform with the group are seen as disloyal.

Preventing Groupthink

Though recognizing the symptoms of Groupthink can be difficult from within the group, being able to do so is crucial for preventing this potentially catastrophic phenomenon. Groupthink can have several causes, but the most common are:
A culture of cohesion, where maintaining friendly relationships is valued over constructive conversation.
Poor leadership, either through isolating the group, controlling the conversation, or creating a closed culture.
High stakes situations, such as external threats or decisions with very tight deadlines.
If you can learn to recognize these causes and symptoms of Groupthink in your organization, you can begin fighting against them.

However, the best option is, of course, preventing Groupthink before it begins. In both cases, the solution lies in culture and leadership. At Celemi, we design tools that boost leaders’ capacity to facilitate meaningful discussions on business-critical topics. It can take some practice at first, especially if you want to establish an open dialogue across functions and hierarchies. This is where a simulation or structured dialogue can add value, by providing a safe arena to practice in.

Having a culture of dialogue in the organization, instead of cohesion, is the first step to preventing Groupthink. Managers and leaders are responsible for cultivating this culture by promoting open discussion and encouraging constructive criticism and dissent in the workplace. Company leadership should ensure that no groups within the organization become isolated by encouraging dialogue and discussion between departments. Leadership also needs to ensure that the organization itself does not develop a false sense of hubris and rationality, by ensuring that all members of the organization can see the consequences of their decisions. Simply put, everyone needs to be able to step out of their strategic alignment now and then, to be able to critically analyze their perspectives and see the big picture.

But how can you do this?

Preventing Groupthink is easier said than done. If you already have a culture of cohesion in the workplace, or already experience isolation in your company, then reversing these problems will take a lot of proactive work. Leaders need to learn how to promote dialogue and discussion in the workplace and encourage their employees to think critically about their choices. They also need to learn how to critically analyze their own decisions and take in outside opinions.

Celemi’s business simulations promote discussion and dialogue and help participants see the big picture and the consequences of their decisions. We understand the importance of strategic alignment in the workplace, and work to help your people build and use the same mental models. On the other hand, we know the risks of too much strategic alignment and not enough critical thought. Our business simulations are designed with this important balance in mind: building strategic alignment while also maintaining a space for constructive criticism.

Contact us if you’d like to hear more about our method, and how we can help you build strategic alignment, improve business acumen, and avoid Groupthink in the workplace. We’d love to hear more about your specific organizational development needs.
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