Goodbye to Groupthink | How to Challenge the Majority

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“The Court’s opinion can hardly be described as an exemplar of restrained and moderate decision making,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in one of her many dissenting opinions. “Quite the opposite. Hubris is a fit word … ” for what she described as the “demolition” of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

Justice Ginsburg didn’t mince her words here. Known for using bold, unambiguous language, she commands attention when dissenting. 

Now, consider this in the context of your own work life. In reality, how often do you counter the majority—and so directly? When you think it through, you’ll probably find that it’s not so easy to disrupt group harmony. On top of this, your workplace culture might not facilitate productive disagreement, let alone have something akin to the Supreme Court’s centuries-old tradition. 

Certainly some people are readily contrarian. But what about everyone else? How do you effectively disagree with the majority? Why bother in the first place? 

An introduction to “groupthink”

If you’re convinced that the majority is usually right, set aside that notion for a moment to consider the influence of “groupthink.” 

First introduced in the 1970s by psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink occurs when individual group members fail to convey counter-opinions. In groupthink situations, groups disregard alternatives, and as a result, they reach decisions within a narrow vantage point. 

According to groupthink experts, groups typically err because they receive incorrect information and hesitate to contradict other people. This can manifest in the following ways:

  • People don’t correct other group members’ errors and often perpetuate them.
  • Individuals create “cascade effects” by aligning with statements and actions made early on in group dialogue.
  • Over time, group positions become more polarized.
  • Groups focus on what everyone already knows, failing to consider information known by just one or a handful of individuals.

This presents an interesting tension: we can and should believe in the collective wisdom of groups, but not if that wisdom is left unchallenged. 

Perhaps you see the merit of groupthink theory and are motivated to curb its influence. To help you prepare, let’s walk through a few scenarios:

Scenario #1 | To agree or disagree?

Imagine you’re not quite convinced that your team is making the right decision. You need more information, whereas the rest of the group appears satisfied. You can’t decide whether it’s worth speaking up without a definitive counterpoint to offer. 

This may be a moment to tread lightly. Start by asking your colleagues to clarify specific points they’ve made. As you work through this “fact-finding” exercise, ask follow-up questions until you really understand their logic and intention. Remember that group members can perpetuate factual errors or misinterpretations; if this surfaces as a result of your questions, you’ve likely done the group a favor. At the very least, your colleagues should appreciate your efforts to really listen and understand the conversation.

If you’re ultimately still unconvinced by the majority opinion, it’s perfectly fine to say so. “Thanks for clarifying these points,” you might say. “We’ve covered a lot of ground, but I need more time to think this through. Can we take another day before moving forward?” 

Scenario #2 | You wholeheartedly disagree with the consensus

You’ve listened intently, increasingly convinced that your team is poised to make the wrong move. You’ll regret staying quiet, but you’re nervous to present a contradictory viewpoint. 

Here, you could take a page from Justice Ginsburg’s playbook by conveying a clear, but respectful, counter-opinion. Her approach is to highlight common ground before educating and disagreeing with the so-called “opposition.” Justice Ginsburg stands by this tact, suggesting: “ … there is nothing better than an impressive dissent to lead the author of the majority opinion to refine and clarify her initial circulation.”

It’s a great point: skillful dissent facilitates the sort of critical dialogue that strengthens group decision-making. Nevertheless, directness may not resonate with every group—it likely depends on the delivery and how accustomed people are to straightforward feedback.

Alternatively, you can play the devil’s advocate, which allows you to separate yourself from the opinion you put forward. You can later align with the opposing perspective, but beginning in this role may help you to introduce a counter-view in the first place.

Scenario #3 | You have information that your colleagues aren’t privy to

In other instances, you may spend an hour in discussion only to suddenly remember a piece of critical information. It’s an inconvenient moment: the group is nearing consensus and you’ve already aligned with the majority. But the information you now recall changes the game for you—and perhaps for others.

It’ll take effort on your part to speak up: self-silencing is a groupthink problem. Once you muster the courage to speak up, you can frame the question to encourage critical thinking in order to deflect groupthink tendencies. Try easing in with a hypothetical: “What if someone were to introduce information that undermines what we’ve agreed on?” 

Try something like this:

“Our conversation jogged my memory, and I’d like to make sure we have all relevant information on hand.”

Then, go ahead and present the facts (perhaps withholding your own conclusions, at least at first), so that your colleagues have ample opportunity to process the new information.

In any situation

There are some universal tips you can apply in many situations:

  • Avoid introducing new information or counterpoints at the very end of meetings. When people are ready to call it a day, they may be less receptive. Instead, suggest that you’d like further discussion and arrange for another meeting.
  • Before meetings, introduce the facilitator to an article on groupthink. This expert article offers some practical tips, many of which are fitting for group facilitators.
  • Invite colleagues to a conversation on groupthink before an important meeting. By introducing the concept and tips to overcome it, you’ll help people avoid the pitfalls.

***

There’s a lot you can do to challenge the majority—and interrupt groupthink. Are you ready to try?

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Jen Bogle is a communications specialist who writes for Idealist Careers to share her thoughts on leadership, relationship building, and career development with other social-impact professionals.
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Comments

    • Parker Brown-Nesbit
    • May 4, 2019
    Reply

    I would think that this would only work in situations where one has colleagues (and supervisors) receptive to a dissenting opinion. I worked at a company where no dissent was allowed. Doing so got me fired for insubordination (I turned around and resigned).

      • Jen Bogle
      • May 10, 2019
      Reply

      Hi Parker, thanks a lot for sharing this personal story. It brings up an important point: these tactics are best used in an office culture where people are generally open to hearing views that differ from their own. If there’s little or no tolerance for healthy debate and the sort of retribution you experienced, then I think it’s critical to really consider whether or not it’s worth staying at that organization – which it sounds like you did for yourself.

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