One of the complaints I hear frequently from the people I work with as an executive coach is the lack of time to get work done due to meetings. (You’ve probably heard the definition? Meetings: where work goes to die…)

Meetings are time consuming, no doubt, often pointless, redundant, divisive AND all teams require them. A case of “can’t work with ’em…can’t keep your job without ’em.”

But that’s not the worst. There are other insidious disadvantages to teamwork, notes Professor Heidi K. Gardner in her April 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Coming Through When It Matters Most.”

“Just when teams most need to draw on the full range of their members’ knowledge to produce the high-quality, uniquely suitable outcomes they started out to deliver, they instead begin to revert to the tried and true,” Gardner writes.

And that is far worse than all the mind-numbing meetings. It’s made worse because it’s a hidden cause of team failures. Instead of reaping the rewards of innovative thinking and the “wisdom of crowds,” team members collude to arrive at a groupthink consensus rather than continuing long discussions.

When teams are under pressure, members gravitate toward safe ground. While most start out highly engaged, inviting input from everyone, members become risk-averse as they push toward project completion. They maneuver toward consensus in a way that blocks paths to critical information.

This process occurs through subtle language cues that warn team members to avoid delays. Team leaders use their positional power to foster harmony and swift decision-making. Although discussions still appear to be open, in reality there’s an effort to move the project along by getting everyone to agree on the optimal course.

If this sounds like “groupthink,” it is. But it’s more nuanced and subtle—hence, more dangerous.

The Groupthink Virus

Groupthink, originally researched by Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within teams. It’s a mode of thinking that occurs when a decision-making group’s desire for harmony overrides its realistic appraisal of alternatives.

When groupthink goes viral, team members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus, without critically evaluating additional ideas or viewpoints. Factors like group cohesiveness and situational context help determine whether groupthink will contaminate the decision-making process.

The negative cost of groupthink is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Organizationally, these consequences lead to costly errors in product launches, service policies and competitive strategies.

What are your thoughts about this? Sure, everybody loves it when a team reaches agreement and moves on toward goals and project completion. But how do you evaluate whether members have explored all ideas and considered alternatives sufficiently? How can you tell if they are just simply tired of meetings and discussions?

I’d love to hear your experiences with this hidden problem within teams. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. As always, I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.

Leave a Comment