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The term group thinking, coined in 1972 by the social psychologist Irving L. Janis, is the name given to the inbuilt tendency which most of us have to want to fit in to any group with which we identify. We seek consensus, even to the point in some cases of setting aside our personal beliefs and opinions in order not to rock the boat – particularly in a work context when there is a strong prevailing organisational culture.
Clearly, groupthink works against the idea of diversity of thought. And some would argue that the consequences of that can be disastrous. Sallie Krawcheck, former CFO at Citigroup and former President of Bank of America Global Wealth Management, has blamed the 2008 financial crisis on groupthink. As she put it, “while the media has blamed the financial crisis on greed, what I actually saw was people who ate their own cooking, not evil geniuses who perfectly foresaw the crisis”.
Her point is that the bankers, sharing the same background and mutually supporting the same views and assumptions, were firmly engaged in groupthink. And a homogenous group is almost certain to produce homogenised ideas which, even if they don’t have quite such disastrous results, will inevitably stifle innovation.
The added danger is that groupthink becomes self-perpetuating – when the group needs to recruit, those who look, sound and appear to think like the group are far more likely to be taken on than those who don’t.
So how do organisations get out of this potentially dangerous conformity? For Krawcheck “the answer, of course, is diversity of thought”.