Unison in Teams: The Perils and Power of Groupthink

 illustrating the concept of groupthink.

The aspiration for unity in a team is commendable, yet it’s not without its pitfalls. Ever pondered about the hidden risks of group dynamics? Delving deep into the phenomenon of ‘groupthink’, we unearth some vital insights for coaches and leaders alike.

Read more: Unison in Teams: The Perils and Power of Groupthink

Understanding Groupthink

Not too long ago, I penned an in-depth piece on team building. Research indeed shows that team-building activities can be beneficial. However, a lurking danger is that everyone might succumb to ‘groupthink’. In the early 1970s, Irving Janis popularized this term, highlighting a scenario where every group member thinks alike. The absence of disagreement and critical evaluation can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Historical Consequences of Groupthink

Groupthink can arise when people place undue trust in a charismatic leader. A prime example is America’s ill-fated ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion – a covert operation to invade Cuba and topple Castro. Advisors to President Kennedy, otherwise astute, suspended their judgment. Why? They believed Kennedy could do no wrong. As recounted by Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s inner circle had unbounded faith in his capabilities, thinking he had the Midas touch. The danger was clear: no one dared to oppose him.

Safeguarding Against Groupthink

The legendary Winston Churchill established a dedicated department to shield himself from groupthink. While many might be awed by Churchill’s formidable personality, this department, as Jim Collins notes, was tasked with delivering the bleakest of news. The goal? To prevent a false sense of security.

Notable Practices to Challenge Groupthink

Alfred P. Sloan, ex-CEO of General Motors, offers another striking example. Leading a high-level policy group that seemed to agree unanimously, he proposed postponing the decision to allow time for potential disagreements and understanding implications. Ancient Persians had a unique approach: if a sober group agreed on a decision, they’d reconsider it while inebriated. David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, awarded employees who challenged him. One young engineer’s persistence led to a product generating $35 million in sales, earning him Packard’s admiration and recognition.

Striking the Balance

In essence, consensus is crucial to achieve common objectives. But, coaches and leaders should be wary of Irving Janis’ groupthink theory. Encouraging group involvement and critical thinking can be beneficial. As a coach, you might have to be vulnerable, especially when it’s your strategy under scrutiny. Perhaps taking a leaf out of the Ancient Persians’ book, sometimes a trip to the bar can provide the most enlightening debates!


While unanimity has its place, striking the balance between consensus and critical thinking is essential. Engaging team members and being open to feedback not only fosters innovation but also safeguards against potential pitfalls.


Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset – updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson.

Klein, Cameron & DiazGranados, Deborah & Salas, Eduardo & Le, Huy & Burke, Shawn & Lyons, Rebecca & Goodwin, Gerald. (2009). Does Team Building Work?. Small Group Research. 40. 181 – 222. 10.1177/1046496408328821.

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