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Groupthink: How it Affects Growth and 5 Ways to Overcome it


I remember when it used to be cool to be different. But somewhere along the path to adulthood, we can lose our desire to stand out. And in its place, we foster a longing to conform to the group. There's a bias called "groupthink" that further makes us lose our own voice, to conform to the collective opinions of groups.

This unanimity in groups in humanity can lead us to fall prey to the groupthink bias. Instead of advocating for worthy or correct ideas, we quietly nod and agree with the group decision. This results in a sense of personal dissatisfaction and can even lead to the failure of a group as a whole.

If you’re ready to use your voice for the betterment of the group, then buckle up. This article will help you overcome the groupthink bias to help you and the groups you belong to thrive.

What is groupthink

Groupthink is a cognitive bias where everyone conforms to the group’s way of thinking instead of advocating for their individual way of thinking. This bias is particularly problematic when the group is agreeing to act cohesively on an immoral or wrong decision.

Simply put, groupthink means you follow the pack instead of using your own voice.

It might sound like agreeing with the group isn’t such a bad thing. And that may be true in some cases. However, groupthink eliminates diversity and creativity (and therefore happiness) within a group which is what helps groups grow as a whole.

And sometimes agreeing with the group means choosing the incorrect decision altogether. A group of people agreeing on the wrong choice still makes the choice wrong at the end of the day.

What are examples of groupthink?

I often encounter the concept of groupthink in my profession. In the medical field, people will often agree with the diagnosis that all the previous providers have told the patient.

Now let me start off by saying that the team diagnosis is often correct. However, there are also many cases where my own examination leads me to disagree with the diagnosis given by the medical team.

As someone who doesn’t enjoy confrontation, it feels easier to agree with the medical team instead of voicing my opinion. It’s also easier for the patient if the team appears unanimous in their understanding of their presentation.

I won’t pretend that there haven’t been times where I have agreed out of fear of upsetting the medical team. But as I have gained experience, it’s easier to respectfully share my opinion and go against the grain a bit.

Another commonplace where groupthink is present is in the classroom. Have you ever been a part of a discussion where everyone seems to be agreeing, but in your head you disagree?

How often have you raised your hand and disagreed with the entire class? If you’re like me, not as many times as you should have.

Too many times during PT school I nodded my head with the group instead of expressing a differing opinion.

The simple reality is as humans we long to fit in and be a part of the group. So disagreeing is tricky business when everyone else seems to be on the same page.

Studies on groupthink

What I find particularly intriguing is that groupthink is laced into scientific research itself. 

Researchers have found that even the peer-review process related to research articles exhibits bias and groupthink. Essentially, they found that once a claim had been made in a scientific article it was easier for following researchers to find data to further support that claim. 

And once a significant finding is made, individuals seem more motivated to perform research to further validate its existence as opposed to deny it.

It’s as though science itself is not exempt from human nature despite our best efforts.

Another study in 2016 found that if healthcare professionals give into groupthink patient outcomes tend to be poorer. They theorize this is because the team fails to entertain other hypotheses that could explain the patient’s symptoms.

It seems to me that no group is exempt from being at risk of experiencing the groupthink bias.

How does groupthink affect your mental health?

The groupthink bias often results in giving into peer pressure to feel included in the group. If you feel the desire to go against peer pressure, this can result in feeling isolated or a sense of rejection.

This is why I know I have given into the groupthink bias in the past. I don’t want to risk rejection or being the odd man out. Because no one will deny that being the odd man out is an uncomfortable feeling.

And the studies show that the influence of the people you know or groups you belong to is almost 100 times more powerful than that of strangers.

It all stems back to the desire to fit in and be a part of the group to feel a sense of worthiness.

But the truth of the matter is you are worthy regardless of whether or not your thoughts align with the group’s thoughts.

In moments where I have not stood up for my opinion, I ended up feeling a sense of shame that I wasn’t braver and bolder. I want to be the person who stands up for what they believe no matter what the cost.

And the more you learn to value your own thoughts, the less pressure and stress you will feel to fit in with the group. Because the right group will value your opinion, especially when it’s different.

5 ways to overcome groupthink

It’s time to embrace your inner black sheep and overcome groupthink with these 5 tips.

1. Join diverse groups

When it comes to forming groups or joining groups, seek out diversity. People with varying backgrounds are less likely to think exactly the same and will encourage new insights.

Diversity can help assure that the group doesn’t stick to one perspective. This in and of itself can effectively counter groupthink.

I remember I used to spend most of my time hanging out with physical therapists. Naturally, it was easier to agree with these folks because to risk disagreeing would make me look ineffective at my profession.

However, we started to invite some medical doctors to hang out. And when we would have discussions, they would have totally different perspectives than we did.

These different perspectives made me feel more comfortable sharing my opinion, even when it didn’t align with the rest of the group. The diversity of the group alone was enough to break up the instinctual head nodding.

2. Make space for open discussion

If you don’t feel safe or comfortable to have an open discussion, then you are prone to fall prey to groupthink.

I recall a few years back I worked at a location where everyone was afraid to disagree with the boss. The boss could have been totally wrong, but if you wanted to keep your job you didn’t say a peep.

This resulted in staff meetings simply being gatherings where we all agreed with the boss’ opinion. As you can imagine, there was little room for growth in this group.

And because no one was willing to speak up, mistakes were made when the boss’ opinion was incorrect. As you can imagine this also led to a bunch of disgruntled employees.

On the other hand, I have worked in environments where everyone was encouraged to share their opinion. This is where groups thrive. The varying opinions and open discussion promotes growth.

This is why it’s key to open the discussion up in a manner that encourages folks to share their perspective.

3. Get clear on what matters to you

If you don’t know what you value, it’s easier to go with the group when it comes to tough decisions. This is why you need to clearly understand your values and advocate for them.

Just the other day I was a part of a discussion regarding a hot political topic. The entire group I was with was getting riled up and agreeing about something I thought was totally unethical.

Fortunately, I’m at a place in my life where I know what I value and I’m not afraid to say it. So instead of going along with the group, I respectfully spoke my mind.

The group was surprisingly open to these thoughts and we ended up having a highly productive conversation. We didn’t agree at the end of the day, but we had a healthy conversation where I didn’t ignore my values.

In moments like that, it can be highly uncomfortable to disagree. That’s just the plain and simple truth.

If you’re going to be bold and stand up for what you think, then you need to be clear about it before those moments arise. Being clear on who you are and what you believe will help you avoid giving into groupthink.

4. Play devil’s advocate

If you find that no one is questioning a thought process in a group setting, it’s time to play devil’s advocate.

I try to do this often when it comes to a few professional groups I am a part of. We have monthly meetings regarding physical therapy related topics.

At these meetings, they present case studies where they want groups to get together and problem solve the best treatment plan. Oftentimes, these groups will come up with similar solutions where everyone seems to simply nod their head.

I’ve started to play devil’s advocate and give a solution that’s in opposition to the group’s stance. It may sound like I’m just trying to stir the pot, but I promise that’s not the case. Or maybe it’s only half true.

But what ends up happening by considering the opposite opinion is you are able to see that your initial thoughts weren’t the only way of doing things. This usually spurs on much more meaningful conversation.

Try it next time you’re in a group where no one is asking questions in relation to a decision. I promise it will result in some interesting dialogue.

5. Support your group members

People are willing to speak up and participate in groups where they feel supported. If new ideas or perspectives are quickly shot down, it’s easier to just go with the crowd.

I try to make it a point during staff meetings to engage with the opinions of others so they know they are heard. I also like to say a simple thanks for sharing your thoughts to indicate my appreciation.

I know it sounds almost elementary, but feeling supported and supporting others is important for defeating groupthink.

I'm sure you can think of a time you were in a group where you didn’t feel valued. More likely than not, you weren’t motivated to share your opinion.

Cultivating an environment of support may be the easiest yet most effective way to assure you won’t be full of a room that blindly nods their heads.

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Wrapping up

The world could always use a few more black sheep. In fact, we need groups full of sheep of all colors with differing perspectives to help us avoid the groupthink bias. With the tips from this article, you can learn when to nod your head and when to speak up. Because if you want your group to thrive, it’s important to not live in a world of “yes sir”.

What's your favorite tip to overcome groupthink? When was the last time you saw groupthink in your direct environment? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Ashley Kaiser

Writer

Physical therapist, writer, and outdoor enthusiast from Arizona. Self-proclaimed dark chocolate addict and full-time adrenaline junkie. Obsessed with my dog and depending on the day my husband, too.

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