SmartBrief on Leadership


Groupthink vs. consensus: Don’t mix them up

We were nearly three hours into a two-day retreat before I even knew what was happening. A dozen smart people, all with good intentions, were deeply engaged in trying to move the ball down the field for a company we serve. But something didn’t feel right.

At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was just that the conversation felt too … linear. Too neat. Too inconsistent with what I perceived was going on — or might be going on — out there, in the marketplace.

I thought about the old cliché that a fish doesn’t know it’s wet and began to wonder if we were oblivious to the atmosphere outside our own tank. Were we operating by a set of assumptions of which we weren’t even cognizant? Were we asleep with our eyes open? Were we waist-deep in —egad— groupthink?

It happens.

If you don’t think groupthink is dangerous, ask United Airlines. The company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, calls the forced removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight “a failure of epic proportions” because his people let “policies and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing.”

Or ask Pepsi, which days earlier had created a crisis of its own by making a commercial that somehow managed to offend both the progressive left and conservative right (not an easy thing to do). More than one of my colleagues in the ad business has asked, “Why did nobody inside Pepsi see what was developing and speak up?”

Groupthink, that’s why. Steven Sloman, a professor, cognitive scientist and author of “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,” says, “I really do believe that our attitudes are shaped much more by our social groups than they are by facts on the ground.” He points out how most of us intuitively believe we’ll pay a price if we say something that contradicts the majority opinion of our social group. And importantly, he suggests, most of the time groupthink is imperceptible.

Perhaps groupthink is mesmerizing because it feels so easy, as if everybody is moving in the same direction based on a strong sense of internal consensus. But groupthink and consensus are very different things.

Groupthink is natural; consensus requires effort. Groupthink is invisible; consensus must be intentional. Groupthink may indicate drifting; consensus is all about rowing together. When you’re operating with a groupthink mentality, you may not even realize it. But when you’re struggling to achieve consensus, you know it.

Consensus is a byproduct of conflict. That’s what makes it fundamentally different from groupthink. If your team isn’t regularly wrestling with differences of opinion, there’s a good chance you’ve got groupthink going on. If nobody’s speaking up, somebody probably needs to.

That’s the hard part; it’s natural to avoid raising uncomfortable issues. It may cause us to be unpopular. It will likely complicate our lives. In some cases, we may risk derailing our careers. And as silly as it sounds, groupthink may go unchallenged for the simple reason that raising an unanticipated issue will disrupt a meeting agenda on which somebody worked really hard.

There are a host of reasons, big and small, why we tend avoid asking the difficult questions or, as Patrick Lencioni puts it, “entering the danger.”

But that’s the most dangerous thing of all. Sloman says, “If I think I understand because the people around me think they understand, and the people around me all think they understand because the people around them all think they understand, then it turns out we can all have this strong sense of understanding even though no one really has any idea what they’re talking about.”

Bingo.

As much as you may want to pull the covers up over your head — as much as you want to avoid “entering the danger” — it’s more dangerous not to, especially if you have dependents in the house. Raising tough issues can be unpleasant, unclear, risky and distasteful. But the alternative can be deadly.

Groupthink is easy. Consensus is hard. To the casual observer they may look similar, but the path to each is very different. If you suspect there may be something not right in your organization, even if you can’t quite articulate exactly what it is, bring it up. Someone else on your team may be able to see the problem more clearly from a different perspective.

Groupthink is too destructive to be left lurking in the shadows. If you sense something, say something.

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Written by

Steve McKee

This smart looking guy is our agency’s president. When he’s not sitting in his not-so-oval office looking official, he’s busy writing books and winning awards for them.


Published on May 15th, 2017

  • Great article! I spoke up twice in two groupthink organizations and it cost me my job. Easier said than done! I’ll do it again if I had to because to me it’s about having integrity. If you have any tips on how to actually succeed to speak up in a groupthink organizatjon, I’m all ears. 🙂

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