Saturday sessions with the commanding general were not uncommon events. The mood was more relaxed. We left our uniforms at home and made many accomplishments. On this particular day, the boss had just come up from the gym wearing a track suit straight out of Jersey Shore and sporting hair reminiscent of Billy Idol in his younger days. He had a style all his own, but I wasn’t about to point out the humor, as tempting as it was.

Defining Moment in Understanding the Value of Conflict

We spread out several PowerPoint slides on his conference room table. The discussion for this morning was how the character of conflict morphed across a spectrum from peace to war. Although most people agree that conflict is a constant in any equation, the balance of the relevant factors in such an equation is always a matter of debate. He had his ideas; I had mine. His intent for our discussion was to start to pull the threads together that would eventually form a logical framework that could be used to drive a much broader discussion among the senior leadership of the Army. 

Before we took our seats at the table, he stopped me. “This is important. Don’t agree with me because I’m a three-star general. Disagree with me because I’m wrong.” As a senior leader, he was accustomed to the tendency toward groupthink around him. Unlike many of his peers, however, he was well aware of that tendency and determined to avoid it. 

Team Harmony or Just Groupthink?

Groupthink, a term first introduced in 1971 by psychologist Irving Janis, is a phenomenon common to the board rooms, conference rooms, and cubicle farms of many hierarchical organizations. Irving’s research revealed a tendency among some groups to make irrational or sub-optimal decisions, driven by an overwhelming desire to conform or avoid dissent. Spend enough time in the defense sector—especially at senior echelons—and eventually you’ll encounter groupthink. While it creates a seductive illusion of team harmony and coherence, it stymies critical thinking and serves as an obstacle to meaningful progress. It’s frustrating, disappointing, and maddeningly counterproductive.

The psychology behind groupthink is simple: either through fear or a need to fit in, people will tend toward the consensus. Add a senior leader to the formula and the likelihood of groupthink only increases. Being granted access to the inner circle might make us hesitate to express our doubts or concerns, even when ethical or moral issues are involved. Those who do break from the group may be socially ostracized or worse, which only adds to the pressure to conform to the consensus decision. The consequences of groupthink can be significant—and dire.

Learn to Spot Groupthink

Recognizing groupthink is as easy and understanding the circumstances that are most likely to produce it. The presence of strong central leader figure can certainly lead to groupthink. But, so can a group with an underlying “us versus them” mentality. Time can also be a factor in groupthink. The decision-making rush can be fueled by consensus tradeoffs. Members of the group can accede to the group perspective, even when those perspectives are clearly not in their best interests.

Fight Against the Tide

Combatting groupthink is just as easy, but often requires a bit of leadership finesse. First, create an environment that welcomes open expression and dissent. Setting those ground rules early and reinforcing them mitigates against groupthink. Second, you must allow enough time for the group to thoroughly discuss and debate the issue at hand. Even on a compressed timely, this is essential. Third, you may need to make use of a “red team” or devil’s advocate to spur debate and spotlight potential flaws. Finally, if you are the senior leader in the room, you made need to step back and allow the group to debate among themselves. At a minimum, you should avoid giving the group your “approved answer” before any substantive discussion occurs.

A Lack of Conflict Does Not Equal an Effective Team

When it comes to groupthink, even the best intentions can produce the worst results. An over-reliance on harmony and consensus might please the boss in the short term, but over time they will come to learn that the group isn’t serving their best interests. Groupthink is as dysfunctional to a team as the inability to work together. A little friction and disharmony are just part of team-building, something any good leader understands.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.