Creativity

The Devastating Power of GroupThink

One of the obstacles to creative thinking our team at Cooke Media Group often encounters is “groupthink.” It happens when the team at a church, ministry, or nonprofit all thinks alike. There are many reasons groupthink happens:

  • A leader who demands that everything be done his or her way.
  • A pliable team that just wants to “get along.”
  • An overriding philosophy that “we’ve always done it this way.”
  • A culture that’s grown out of an experience of being burned by a bad project or idea.
  • A leader who’s a micromanager.
  • A culture that takes “respect” too far, and assumes anything a leader says is sacred.
  • A culture that believes conflict is always a negative thing.

There’s more reasons, but every single one is a mistake. Wikipedia describes “groupthink” like this: “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups of people, in which the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints. …The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.”

Re-read the last line of the Wikipedia definition: “The primary socially negative cost of groupthink is the loss of individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking.”

Bottom line: As groupthink increases, your individual creativity decreases. As a result, the overall creativity decreases as well, and eventually the organization becomes irrelevant.

The Bible teaches us that unity is critical, and it’s understandable that many Christians assume this extends to the workplace – sometimes in the extreme. But unity doesn’t mean thinking alike or giving up our unique identity. Disagreement, debate, and even conflict fuels great ideas and accomplishments.

Francis Phillip Wernig said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been before.

If you’re in a groupthink culture, the question you have to ask yourself is – Is this worth it? Is constant harmony, continual agreement, and slave-like obedience worth the loss of your identity? Is is worth the loss of your creativity?

If not, then it may be time to either lead a revolt, or move to an organization that values who you are – not just how well you fit in.

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26 Comments

  1. I had the great experience of working for one ministry where our creative group had discussions that ranged from energetic banterings to heated debates while coming up with ideas, solutions, executions, logistics and more. We had some of the best debates- we saw the red faces of anger and some of laughter, we saw our coworkers as our team members, friends, and in some cases like family. No one got offended. No one dominated, but I lead the team. We accomplished a great deal through our creative discussions. Everyone threw spitball ideas on the table and we built on them, tweaked or killed them. Those were the days! I turned the stakeholders into shareholders. We kicked butt in our media, marketing, and production departments!!

    With that one exception, my experience of working in ministry has resembled GroupThink- Check your brain at the door, silence your voice when you silence your phone, do what you’re told, and say “yes” to every idea the leader has because not to, sends the message that you’re not a teamplayer- go figure. It’s considered “starting an argument” if you bring a different thought to the table. Being overlooked for answers and solutions when you’re an experienced professional is common. As joesindorf said in his comment, the choice is to either be right or be employed. The urge to be right can be very tempting some days.

    You are so right Phil. This is a great article and more leaders need to understand what they are doing to their staff when they lead with this mentality. It’s unfortunate that the church/ministry has not learned how to embrace true leadership skills. To lead with GroupThink mentality is devastating to individuals, and ultimately their organization. Nothing good can come of it. Thank you for posting this.

  2. You’re right, Phil. “GroupThink” is detrimental to great thinking. Like you, I’ve worked in numerous church and ministry situations and I typically find that there is great diversity in thought and strategy when departments or working groups are in their own cocoons. Often I’ve found that they hoped the leader of that department or team would bring it up to the decision maker(s) with the process actually hidden from view. Those who were vocal during department meetings would silence themselves when the pastor or executive was in the room. I’ve witnessed great fear at appearing to be in disagreement with the leadership. At the end of the day, the creative teams would rather be employed than be right.

    1. Well said Joe. And any organization that threatens to fire a person who speaks out is an organization that’s not worth working for… Excellent points all around. Thanks for the comment!

  3. The last thing an organization needs is to lose the creativity and uniqueness that each member brings to the team! Remember why you hired them in the first place…
    And, I’ve got to add that the quote by Wernig helps cross this over to an individual’s life or career. May we be people who find ourselves in places no one has ever been before, leading the way for others.

  4. We see a lot of church groups come through our ministry, and it’s interesting to see how this topic plays into their daily conversations. You would never want a sports team to ALL play the same way, would you? The purpose of a team is to utilize the gifts and talents of others for the common good of the mission at hand. I think everyone can fall guilty of “groupthinking” from time to time, and it’s our role as leaders to reverse that process as soon as it pops up. At the end of the day, I’ve seen leaders crutch on “creating culture” (which is really their insecure way of wanting to always be right) instead of developing the people around them simply by letting people think for themselves. By engaging in that mindset, people don’t speak up with their ideas, the leader gets stuck in their ego, and sadly the vision doesn’t move forward. Good leaders have something to say. Great leaders hear what others have to say.

    1. Excellent point Andrew. Any group can fall into it, largely because we like to hang around people like us. The concept of “diversity” is popular these days, but we should remember that “diversity of thinking” is just as important as diversity in terms of race, gender, and age.

  5. Sometimes groupthink happens in the hiring process…

    One of the services we offer when working with our clients – and especially leaders – is to administer various personality profiles and use them to develop better communication and stronger teams. At one organization of about 120 people we discovered that over 100 of them had the same personality profile! In that situation, leadership had unintentionally hired people who viewed things essentially the same way as they did. Groupthink was the regrettable outcome. The leaders had not realized they were doing this. Only as they hired new staff who intentionally viewed things differently, we they able to overcome a 20-year creativity crisis.

    In a large church where I was training the pastoral team, the profiles revealed that they were missing a key team component… what we call a Refiner. Refiners examine initiatives and ask probing questions in an effort to ensure that all issues have been properly examined and potential problems resolved — so the new initiative can be executed flawlessly. When I asked about this obvious leadership gap, the senior pastor replied that they used to have someone like that on staff – but they fired him because he had a “rebellious spirit”. What they mis-read as rebellion was simply a member of the team seeing potential pitfalls from a different perspective. As a result, the church leadership was running into problem after problem as groupthink took over. By intentionally filling out the missing team component and being sensitive to the new Refiners role, they were able to move into a new season of growth.

    Phil, while you are certainly right on in your observations, I believe that many of the groupthink drivers you cited can also be impacted by hiring the right people. Creativity in an organization requires the combination of a leader who will allow and cultivate creative thinking — and well as a team who represent different paradigms and viewpoints. If the leader will simply not allow creative thinking – it may indeed be time for a team member to leave. But leaders also need to be sure to hire people who may see things differently that they do and have the desire and ability to explore new ways of thinking.

    1. I think you’re exactly right Mark. I know that in my case, our success went up when I stopped hiring people who were just like me – and you were instrumental in helping me learn that principle. Bringing people onto the team who are strong in areas I’m weak made a real positive difference for us. Great thoughts! Thanks for posting!

  6. Very, very good post…and it takes perception, experience & courage to say what you did, Phil.

    Have worked for 2 famous Christian TV networks where the founder & president was KING. Rule was authoritarian. Don’t mess with him, the spouse or the children (heirs to the throne = princes & princesses). Both networks were run by fear, the last one here on West Coast was stifling; make it past 3 years & you were a lifer. Great people; all boxed in. One word of discontent and you were shown the door in 15 minutes (or less). So you would have to succumb to GROUPTHINK. Go along, or else. People stopped thinking up great ideas knowing such input would never happen. They worked in a vacuum.

    Maybe you missed one other leader, Phil: THE ABSENT PASTOR/LEADER. In our staff’s case (all outsiders to the church) pastor didn’t want to truly be a pastor anymore (still doesn’t), i.e. be a shepherd, hold hands, pray with people, be there for the hurting, cast vision, make decisions, dedicate babies, care for the dying. The pressure was too much. He only wanted to teach/preach (his tremendous gift, btw). So he would delegate, with strong desires to be in first class on the airplane flying faraway to speak for pastoral buddies & @ conferences. But that desire was also faraway from responsibility. And while the cat was away, the mice would play…making decisions, hiring, firing, squashing out any new ideas, taking credit for any successes and avoiding any failures. Staff were forced into GROUPTHINK to survive (if they did at all).

    Creativity was controlled, manipulated. The adage of “we want to go to the next level” was borne of great intentions…but not for leaders who were adverse to change & desired control. When things went wrong? Facts were changed to protect the leaders from pastor’s anger.

    Want to be a beautiful butterfly? Then you have to be willing to transform from a caterpllar.

    1. It takes a very confident leader to be open to opposing ideas, that’s for sure!. Let’s hope more and more of those leaders are out there in the future! Thanks for the advice! Great comments!

  7. We see a lot of church groups come through our ministry, and it’s interesting to see how this topic plays into their daily conversations. You would never want a sports team to ALL play the same way, would you? The purpose of a team is to utilize the gifts and talents of others for the common good of the mission at hand. I think everyone can fall guilty of “groupthinking” from time to time, and it’s our role as leaders to reverse that process as soon as it pops up. At the end of the day, I’ve seen leaders crutch on “creating culture” (which is really their insecure way of wanting to always be right) instead of developing the people around them simply by letting people think for themselves. By engaging in that mindset, people don’t speak up with their ideas, the leader gets stuck in their ego, and sadly the vision doesn’t move forward. Good leaders have something to say. Great leaders hear what others have to say.

  8. Sometimes groupthink happens in the hiring process…

    One of the services we offer when working with our clients – and especially leaders – is to administer various personality profiles and use them to develop better communication and stronger teams. At one organization of about 120 people we discovered that over 100 of them had the same personality profile! In that situation, leadership had unintentionally hired people who viewed things essentially the same way as they did. Groupthink was the regrettable outcome. The leaders had not realized they were doing this. Only as they hired new staff who intentionally viewed things differently, we they able to overcome a 20-year creativity crisis.

    In a large church where I was training the pastoral team, the profiles revealed that they were missing a key team component… what we call a Refiner. Refiners examine initiatives and ask probing questions in an effort to ensure that all issues have been properly examined and potential problems resolved — so the new initiative can be executed flawlessly. When I asked about this obvious leadership gap, the senior pastor replied that they used to have someone like that on staff – but they fired him because he had a “rebellious spirit”. What they mis-read as rebellion was simply a member of the team seeing potential pitfalls from a different perspective. As a result, the church leadership was running into problem after problem as groupthink took over. By intentionally filling out the missing team component and being sensitive to the new Refiners role, they were able to move into a new season of growth.

    Phil, while you are certainly right on in your observations, I believe that many of the groupthink drivers you cited can also be impacted by hiring the right people. Creativity in an organization requires the combination of a leader who will allow and cultivate creative thinking — and well as a team who represent different paradigms and viewpoints. If the leader will simply not allow creative thinking – it may indeed be time for a team member to leave. But leaders also need to be sure to hire people who may see things differently that they do and have the desire and ability to explore new ways of thinking.

  9. Very, very good post…and it takes perception, experience & courage to say what you did, Phil.

    Have worked for 2 famous Christian TV networks where the founder & president was KING. Rule was authoritarian. Don’t mess with him, the spouse or the children (heirs to the throne = princes & princesses). Both networks were run by fear, the last one here on West Coast was stifling; make it past 3 years & you were a lifer. Great people; all boxed in. One word of discontent and you were shown the door in 15 minutes (or less). So you would have to succumb to GROUPTHINK. Go along, or else. People stopped thinking up great ideas knowing such input would never happen. They worked in a vacuum.

    Maybe you missed one other leader, Phil: THE ABSENT PASTOR/LEADER. In our staff’s case (all outsiders to the church) pastor didn’t want to truly be a pastor anymore (still doesn’t), i.e. be a shepherd, hold hands, pray with people, be there for the hurting, cast vision, make decisions, dedicate babies, care for the dying. The pressure was too much. He only wanted to teach/preach (his tremendous gift, btw). So he would delegate, with strong desires to be in first class on the airplane flying faraway to speak for pastoral buddies & @ conferences. But that desire was also faraway from responsibility. And while the cat was away, the mice would play…making decisions, hiring, firing, squashing out any new ideas, taking credit for any successes and avoiding any failures. Staff were forced into GROUPTHINK to survive (if they did at all).

    Creativity was controlled, manipulated. The adage of “we want to go to the next level” was borne of great intentions…but not for leaders who were adverse to change & desired control. When things went wrong? Facts were changed to protect the leaders from pastor’s anger.

    Want to be a beautiful butterfly? Then you have to be willing to transform from a caterpllar.

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