Tag: organizational development

How to Recognize and Avoid Groupthink Psychology

Groupthink psychology happens when close-knit groups ignore or suppress opposing views and inconvenient facts.  It can lead to catastrophic failures in organizations large and small.  Know the signs and adopt solutions to avoid groupthink psychology.

“How could we have been so stupid?” That striking John F. Kennedy’s quotation opens Irving Janis’ Psychology Today article entitled “Groupthink” which coined the phrase in 1971.  Kennedy was reflecting on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which Janis examined as an example of the newly named phenomenon. (A pdf version of Janis’ original article can be found at this link.)

Groupthink psychology happens when group members seek consensus while ignoring or suppressing opposing views and contrary facts. The results of groupthink can be found in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the collapse of Enron, and the 2008 financial crisis, among many other examples.

Groupthink psychology robs group members of their judgment and independence, whether in the White House or the conference room down the hall. This article will examine the causes of groupthink and consider solutions for organizations large and small.

Causes of groupthink psychology

Groupthink psychology grows from the desire of individuals to conform and show loyalty to their group. It is more likely to take hold when a group becomes cohesive and the members feel accepted. In that situation, group members are less willing to challenge each other, or “rock the boat.”  

These are some of the contributors to groupthink psychology:

  1. Sense of invulnerability: Groups with an inflated sense of importance (like Enron’s “smartest guys in the room”) are willing to take exceptional risks while ignoring obvious dangers.  
  1. Rationalizing: Group members rationalize away objections, including their own, to justify the group’s course of action. The group avoids examining assumptions or taking criticism seriously.
  1. Belief in the group: Group members believe in the “rightness” of the group and its mission. Belief in the group causes members to lose sight of their own ethics and morality.
  1. Stereotyping: Group members see competitors in simplistic ways. The group sees itself as the best, the smartest, the most moral, while seeing the competition as weak, immoral, or untrustworthy.
  1. Pressure to conform:  Group members put pressure on those who express doubts about the group’s decision. Pressure adds personal cost to dissent and reinforces the need to support the group.
  1. Self-censorship:  Group members defer to what they believe is the group consensus. They keep silent about, or minimize, their own doubts. 
  1. Illusion of consensus: Group members feel an illusion of consensus – that everyone supports the decision. The illusion is the result of pressure to conform and the failure to consider consequences and alternatives.
  1. Gatekeepers: Group members appoint themselves gatekeepers to “protect” others from receiving information that could cast doubt on the group’s decision.  

The results of groupthink psychology are often disastrous – and yet the same mistakes happen again and again: Groups limit discussion to a few options – often just two, according to Irving Janis. They fail to re-examine decisions in light of new facts, or to consider ways of improving rejected options.  They fall into confirmation bias – only seeking out information that supports their decision.  

Strategies to avoid groupthink psychology

The most important takeaway is that groupthink psychology can happen to anyone, even the best and brightest. The desire to fit in is a powerful force. The best way to overcome it is to ensure there are safeguards in place. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Play devil’s advocate:  Assign one or more group members to play “devil’s advocate” and critique the solutions proposed. Requiring objections will make it safer for members to speak up.
  1. Challenge the status quo: Give every idea a hearing, even if it seems wrong or is ultimately rejected.  A good way to hear different points of view is to include people of different ages and backgrounds. Rewarding risk-taking is another way to encourage thinking differently or “outside of the box.”
  1. Divide into teams: Have members of the group work separately to analyze the issues. Teams can either propose competing solutions or work independently on different pieces of the puzzle.  
  1. Keep leadership impartial:  Members are more likely to “go with the flow” when leaders express a preference for one solution. To avoid bias, make the leader a facilitator who encourages discussion.
  1. Adopt placeholder solutions:  An approach reported in the Harvard Business Review saw the team adopt a “placeholder” to revisit and examine. Agreeing to explore the idea relieved pressure to find the “best” solution prematurely. It also allowed members to agree on broad principles while disagreeing about details.  

Groupthink psychology can derail the decision-making process. To make sure your organization doesn’t fall into its trap, be aware of the causes and make a plan of action. If you would like to learn more about groupthink psychology, leadership, and team dynamics, please contact us.


Rachel Burr is an executive and leadership coach with over 20 years of experience working with CEOs and the C-suite across all industries, in organizations of from 20 to 10,000 employees. Rachel holds dual master’s degrees in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and numerous certifications in the field of executive coaching. Rachel is a “people expert” who works with clients to unleash their leadership potential.

Using Organizational Development to Create Effective Change

Organizational development goes through these phases: identify a specific problem, solve the problem with change, assess progress, and reset organizational culture, says Rachel Burr, Catamentum leadership Coaching.

Organizational Development is a systematic method of creating effective institutional change.  It relies on open communication with stakeholders (which can include managers and employees, suppliers and clients) and effective feedback to:

  • Identify a specific problem;
  • Effect changes to address the problem; 
  • Assess progress; and,
  • Reset organizational culture to the “new normal.”

Impetus for organizational change comes from changes in strategy by top leaders, when leaders need to steer the organization in a particular direction, they will need active involvement by stakeholders at different levels. Individuals who are active in the process of change are more likely to adopt it. 

Change Agents Lead the Way

Organization Development operates through “change agents” – Change agents can be leaders within an organization. Other times, leaders partner with OD consultants who bring their expertise to help leaders create and sustain change. They work with individuals and teams to identify both the problems and possible solutions, and make change happen.

Once the desired outcomes for changes are identified, change agents often begin the process through structured activities, such as workshops, surveys, or interviews, which are designed to gather information and collect feedback as the process unfolds.  Another big part of the change agent’s role is to coordinate communication so the reasons for change, and the benefits of change, are well understood. 

The communication itself needs to come from leaders. An OD consultant can help leaders design a plan for communication, including timing and messaging to different stakeholders. They may even help draft communications for the leader, but it is important the leaders themselves communicate to ensure these communications have the necessary weight and importance.

The Change Management Model – Three Steps to Change

A clear and concise way of viewing organization development is through the Change Management Model originated by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field.  According to Lewin, successful change occurs in three phases , which he labeled:

  • Unfreezing;
  • Transition; and,
  • Refreezing.

Let’s explore the three steps individually, keeping in mind that there will be overlap among them. 

Unfreezing – Preparing for Change

Unfreezing is the planning stage, in which leaders and those assisting leaders with organizational changes gather information to identify the problem and its cause.  As noted above, the process may include structured activities or workshops, as well as surveys and interviews, to get stakeholders actively involved. 

The objective is to help people understand why the changes are happening, how these changes will impact the work, what the challenges might be, and how to navigate those challenges.

The leader is the owner for the change(s), even though some of the implementation work can be delegated to others, the leader owns both the responsibility and the results. 

Transition – Making the Change

Once the organization is “unfrozen” and ready for change, it’s time for action.  The organization undertakes the planned course of action, often called interventions

Interventions can take any number of forms, and may impact individuals, groups, or the organization as a whole.  

An individual intervention may call for training or coaching, either due to a new role or a performance issue.  A group intervention may involve team building exercises or workshops to develop new ways of collaborating.  Finally, an organization intervention may involve restructuring or strategic changes that affect everyone.  Such major changes will be unique to each organization. 

Transition is the most difficult stage.  Even with maximum involvement and understanding, some individuals will resist adopting new ways of working.  Leaders must communicate – clearly and consistently – the need for, and benefits of, change, and they must be prepared to help the organization navigate the resistance. 

The change agent has a dual role at this stage:  Supporting leaders in their communications, while also monitoring the impact of change.  The second part of that role reflects the need to continue getting feedback, assessing effectiveness, and making adjustments if needed. 

Refreezing – Establishing a “New Normal”

Once the hurdles of the transition stage have been overcome and the results assessed, the organization needs to reset its culture around the new ways of working.  The refreezing stage is intended to reinforce and ground changes in the organization to avoid falling back into old patterns. 

Leaders must set the tone and lead by example, becoming role models for change.  Leaders must understand where flexibility will be necessary: giving individuals time to adapt, preparing for the inevitable resistance, and providing other support as needed.  The goal is to ensure the organization successfully embraces change as a new way of doing business. 

If you would like to learn more about organizational development, or if you want to leverage Catamentum’s OD expertise, please contact us.


Rachel Burr is an executive and leadership coach with over 20 years of experience working with CEOs and the C-suite across all industries, in organizations of from 20 to 10,000 employees. Rachel holds dual master’s degrees in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and numerous certifications in the field of executive coaching. Rachel is a “people expert” who works with clients to unleash their leadership potential.

How to Communicate Company Culture

Fast-growing companies want to quickly hire and onboard people who are not only smart and capable but also a good “culture fit” for the organization. The question is, what does “culture fit” mean, and how do we communicate company culture in a way that is both clear and tangible?

Define the Culture

Company cultures have been described as “the way things get done around here” or “the water in which we swim.” Neither of which are particularly helpful when talking with applicants or onboarding new employees as they dive into the deep end. Leaders must explicitly define and set expectations for the company culture they want to create. 

One of the key ways to communicate company culture is through a company’s vision, mission, and values. Unfortunately, some companies create lengthy vision and mission statements or have a list of core values a mile long. The result?  None of it is useful. These cultural artifacts may be displayed on a website or flashed across a screen during meetings, but often people don’t even know where to find them, let alone how to embody them. Three things must be true to communicate culture effectively: Head-Heart-Hands.  

Head –  Are the vision, mission, and values so clear and concise people can easily explain them off the top of their head? Our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years. We may have a vast amount of storage space, but we have a very small working memory to process and retrieve information. Why is that important? If we can’t easily remember the vision, mission, and values of our company, then it’s unlikely they will influence our behavior.

Heart – Are the vision, mission, and values inspiring? People want to feel motivated by the purpose of the organization and connected to the values. They want to feel energized by the vision for their future and proud to belong to a successful work community.

Hands – Are the vision, mission, and values actionable? Culture is not just an idea. Culture flows through people’s “hands” in the actions they take, the work they do, and the relationships they build. 

We must be able to know the culture in our Head, so it can inspire our Hearts, and be delivered through our Hands. Through this integration we connect with culture as a whole person, and this connection distinguishes true commitment from passive compliance. True commitment means we authentically give our time, attention, and talent to achieve results, and those results are aligned with the company culture we aspire to create. 

Explicit communication about mission, vision, and values is important, but it is not sufficient in how we communicate culture. As the old saying goes, people may pay attention to what we say, but they are far more likely to pay attention to what we do.

Live the Culture

Anyone can slap words on a wall and call them values. Organizations have “espoused values” (what they say their values are), and they have “values in practice” (the values they live day in and day out).  How closely aligned an organization’s espoused values are with the values in practice is a measure of cultural integrity, and it is palpable in “the way things get done around here.”

Leaders must actively seek feedback about where organizational values are aligned and where there are gaps. This takes courage and candor, both from the leadership who ask the questions and the people who provide feedback. Creating a culture of courage and candor is the topic for another blog post (and many, many leadership books).  We can start by asking a few simple questions:

  • “What are examples of how we live our values?”
  • “What are examples of how we are not living our values?”
  • “What is at least one thing we could do differently to close that gap?”

If we really want ongoing honest feedback, we must do at least three things:

Create Safety – People must feel safe providing honest feedback. Some leaders have created trust and safety among their teams. However, even more leaders think people feel safe when they don’t. Rather than assume everyone feels safe, assume everyone does not feel safe, and solicit feedback accordingly. One of the easiest ways to solicit “safe” feedback is through a brief, anonymous survey with open-ended questions like the ones above. Surveys are not a perfect mechanism for feedback, but they’re a start.

Acknowledge Input – Acknowledge people’s feedback and summarize the resulting themes. This helps people feel heard and connect the dots between their input and the feedback from the overall team or organization. 

Take Action – The only thing worse than not soliciting feedback is soliciting feedback and not acting on it. Sometimes the actions we need to take are clear. Other times, we may not know how to solve a problem, and we have to ask for help. It’s not about finding a “perfect” solution. It’s about taking action to experiment and try new things, so people see that we genuinely want to live the values we espouse. 

Grow the Company Culture

As companies grow, the culture naturally changes. The core values are still fundamental, but the diversity of perspectives and how those values are lived will grow and expand. Like an acorn that grows into a towering oak tree, values are the seed that will guide authentic growth. So, how do we grow a culture as we scale a company? One of the best ways to grow and keep people connected to the culture is to encourage stories about how people are living the values. 

Human beings are natural storytellers. We have passed on knowledge and understanding through stories for generations, especially knowledge that may be difficult to define, such as culture. Encourage people to tell their stories about how they are living the values, how they see others living the values, and the impact these experiences have on them, both large and small. Integrate a diverse range of voices into what the values mean to different people. Diversity of thinking and perspectives is critical to creating a strong, sustainable culture and overall organization. 

Culture is not just something that happens around us, it is something that connects us and becomes a part of us. As a result, the way a company culture is most effectively communicated is not through slides in a presentation or a list of values on a wall. The most effective way to communicate culture is through the thoughts, actions, and experiences of the people living it.