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19 Feb 2015

Is Collaboration Groupthink?

Groups get people to conform. They cannot exist if people do whatever they want. Those who do not conform leave. If not they do not share as much in rewards. There are many ways groups do this. Is collaboration one of them? It helps groups come up with ideas. It then helps them agree on action. Is collaboration groupthink though?

For example, collaboration has a coercive aspect. Dosed out in large amounts it stops us from doing our jobs. It benefits us then to agree quickly so we can do our jobs.


Is collaboration groupthink? It can be if it is left to its own devices.

Is collaboration groupthink? It can be.


Hype Around “Is Collaboration Groupthink?”

Susan Cain made hay when she answered the question, “Is collaboration groupthink?” by saying, “yes,” in The New York Times in early 2012. Later that year, Vijay Govindarajan and Jay Terwilliger responded in Harvard Business Review with, “Yes, You Can Brainstorm Without Groupthink.”

They gave three caveats though. Our team must be diverse. We need a facilitator. We need to “encourage passionate champions” of ideas. These will thwart problematic personalities who tend to move collaboration to groupthink. It is not a democratic process though.

Leading Collaboration

The reason for this is simple: again, groups get people to conform. It is the way of nature. Unless there is a leader guiding the collaboration, it will be groupthink.

The key is how to do this. Govindarajan and Terwilliger endorse different styles. That means each collaboration could have a different look, different steps.

For instance, J. Michael Fox had told me that their group’s research found that extroverts and introverts brainstorm differently. Extroverts tend to come up with long lists of ideas. Introverts tend to think about ideas first then give what they think are the best they have to offer. People also differ on their like for structure.

Is Collaboration Groupthink?

So, is collaboration groupthink? It seems it depends on how it goes. What is certain is that it requires work to make sure it is not. That work is leadership.

That means those who manage collaborative efforts must be skilled at it. This means knowing how to manage diverse teams. Otherwise, collaboration is just talk. It is dangerous talk too. Left to its own devices, collaboration is groupthink. It needs leaders to work.

7 Responses

  1. Hate the word, groupthink!!! There is much to gain from working in groups or teams for sure. But the working in groups must never evolve into groupthink. Yes, a facilitator / leader will likely avoid groupthink. But I’d suggest that an agreement on the goals and the operating rules of the team will enable successful outcomes as well. In my classes, I always had team projects. The first team assignment was to produce their “Team Performance Agreement” (TPA) as I called it – a contract among members outlining what their team objectives were and how they were going to go about their work. When asked upon completion of the project outcomes what one thing they might do differently, a frequent response was “pay more attention to our TPA.”

    Working as a team is most effective when teams know when whole-team efforts are needed and when sub-groups or individual efforts are needed. Teams should not do everything together, let alone support groupthink!!!

  2. So true! What we’ve found helpful is the counsel of D. Bakke’s little book on decision making: give people closest to the impact of a decision the authority to make one, but insist they get adequate advice. Promote a transparent and effective decision making process.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Thank you Aidan for stopping by and leaving the reference to D. Bakke’s book. Yes, in collaboration it’s important to have leaders, people who have the authority to make decisions.

  3. Joan Bunashe

    Hi Mike, this is great food for thought and discussion, thank you for posting! From my standpoint, collaboration becomes group think as soon as members are pressured to keep quiet about what they observe isn’t working. In order to get the full benefits of collaboration, openness to considering all perspectives and possibilities must be maintained. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Mike Lehr

      You’re right, Joan. I also find pressure for consensus a detriment, a mature form of peer pressure. This is especially true with the development of new ideas and solutions.

      It is good to consider all perspectives and possibilities with the understanding that all might not be incorporated into the final solution. We wrongly assume that taking the best ideas that each person has to offer about a solution will yield the best outcome. This is like trying to take everyone’s favorite color and blending them together. When you do this, the final color is usually a shade of gray. The same holds true for ideas. You can easily end up removing all color so ideas end up very bland and useless.

      Still, your point about keeping quiet about what they observe isn’t working is very valid. This happens a lot.

      Thank you for stopping by, Joan, visiting and leaving your insights. I appreciate it.

  4. joan

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for your response. I completely agree that it might not be realistic to use every best idea shared. A crucial point here is that in order to obtain the benefits of collaboration, each member ought to be welcome to speak. As soon as there’s pressure to keep quiet, groupthink sets in. In other words, although every idea might not be used, each member ought to be acknowledged and validated when sharing theirs; this not only keeps the group empowered with current choices of ideas and solutions, it fosters ongoing appreciation and respect between members as well.

    Thanks again for sharing your insights and thoughtful responses on this important topic.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Yes, Joan, you’re right about that. Open expression does help in collaboration. Thank you again for the dialogue. ~Mike

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