Groupthink: Dangers in too much goodness

groupthinkToo much of anything should be avoided. Nature always prefers diversity to a monoculture.

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.

Carl G. Jung

In organizations, there is a tendency for similarly-minded people to be attracted to and prosper within a certain environment. Predators do well in a predatory climate, generous people in charities, caring people in caring professions, etc.

There is a danger, however, that can manifest and it is called Groupthink:

…a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas.

Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.

During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking.

A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight. Wikipedia

In my experience, the more well-meaning an organization is (staffed with highly intelligent, self-sacrificing and motivated altruistic individuals) the greater the danger seems to be.

Paradoxically, the most successful groups are at the higher risk they are at. Their very success creates a blind spot as they drift toward excluding the “other”.

The Fisher King legend speaks to this human condition (strength and weakness):

  • an innocent outsider responds with simple compassion to a basic human need (thirst).
  • That which is sought is finally seen, unleashing powers to heal an, to that point, unhealable wound.

In the hyper, hyper, hyper world of instant communication and 100% intolerance for any imperfection, the standards of human performance are set way too high. It is not any individual’s “fault”: it’s just the way groups can go if a tolerance for difference (and even dissent) is not tolerated.

Sometimes well-meaning different perspectives are misinterpreted as threats and dealt with in several ways. Some of these may include: ad hominem attacks, shunning, and scapegoating. A type of dehumanization can even occur.

Sometimes pushing the problem onto someone else’s back is an effective organizational solution. See the classic HBR article Who’s Got the Monkey? by Oncken & Wass.

2 Responses to Groupthink: Dangers in too much goodness

  1. bap3commblog says:

    Groupthink happens when the members are involved in a cohesive in-group(according to the definition by Irving Janis). In that case, won’t ‘pushing the problem onto someone else’s back” go against that principle; because then the group will not be cohesive any longer?


  2. Les Stewart says:


    I don’t think the two ideas (cohesive group and pushing problems onto the “other”) are incompatible at all.

    Shunning, scapegoating, etc. are all effective mechanisms at least in the short-run for dealing with problems.

    It’s only as they accelerate that the true costs of these measures show up in a group’s dysfunction.



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