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Prepare to be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

When like-minded people argue, all they do is provide each other with new reasons supporting already held beliefs.  Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber

The title of this piece was a recurring line of the Borg in Star Trek: the Next Generation. The Borg were an alien entity that assimilated individuals they encountered into a collective hive mind. Those individuals were then no longer independent agents; they acted and thought as part of the collective.

Whilst perhaps not as extreme, is this not dissimilar to the groupthink that pervades society today: in organisations, in news media and on social media?

The term groupthink was popularised by Irving Janis in a 1972 book, Victims of Groupthink, although the term was coined by the writer William H. Whyte Jr in an article in 1952 in Fortune magazine. Janis defines groupthink as:

"a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action."

What this definition doesn’t include is that the group making decisions is usually made up of like-minded individuals, probably recruited, in part, on the basis of being like-minded. This can give the group a strong identity but does it help them evaluate and address their objectives?

An organisation or project engaging in groupthink suffers from confirmation bias. It will:

  • look for evidence that supports its point of view
  • ignore evidence that undermines its point of view
  • will not consider alternative ideas and opinions or reconsider their assumptions

This can result in decisions and actions that are “more of the same”; lacking innovation, narrowly thought out and concerned with supporting group values rather than solving problems (what Thomas Sowell has called “self-congratulation as a basis for social policy”). However, because the group is convinced of its rightness these decisions and actions are considered to be morally good, justified and acceptable.

How can groupthink be addressed?

We hear a lot these days, rightly, about creating diverse workplaces that reflect the society in which they exist. ACAS says a diverse workforce “opens up a wealth of possibilities and helps to encourage creativity and foster innovation.” Usually this diversity is addressing issues around race, education, social background, gender, age and culture.

What if “thought diversity” was added to this list?

Looking at issues from a point of view that is different from the group consensus, even as a devil’s advocate, can help test the validity, usefulness and effectiveness of proposed activities. At the very least they can provide a reality check. In addition, a different perspective can introduce ideas, perspectives and solutions that would otherwise be side-tracked – or probably not even perceived -by the prevailing groupthink.

As George S. Patton said: If everyone it thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

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