Groupthink is a term coined in 1972 by Irving L. Janis, a Yale psychologist and a pioneer in the study of social dynamics. He called groupthink “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (Schwartz and Wald, 2003). In other words, Groupthink happens when group consensus overrides common sense.
The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster is often cited as an example of Groupthink, as is the Enron scandal. These scenarios indicate that even smart people working collectively can make bad decisions. The best way for team leaders to avoid GroupThink is to allow for open debate and differences of opinion – and don’t humiliate people whose ideas you may not like or agree with. Team members can overcome GroupThink by not taking the easy way and just going along with the group. If you have reservations about something, don’t be afraid to speak up. Think outside the box and challenge the status quo. Be an individual, not a clone.
Google is a company that prides itself on innovation and diversity. Likewise, Google has always emphasized teamwork – after all, the search engine started out as a student project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. As such, Google is steeped in interdepartmental collaboration “where everyone is an active contributor and feel[s] comfortable to share ideas and opinions” (Noviantoro, 2014). However, upper management recently behaved in a contradictory manner toward software engineer James Damore after he published a 10-page interoffice memo criticizing the company’s diversity programs and “politically correct monoculture” (O’Brien, 2017).
Damore’s memo was based on Google’s diversity training, much of which he disagreed with, and which he did not believe was in the best interests of the company. He told Reason.com, “I decided to write my thoughts down after attending a particular ‘Diversity and Inclusion Summit,’ although I had seen many of the problems in our culture for a while” (Young, 2017). It appears that somewhere along the line, the company’s values do not seem to be entirely aligned with each other. That’s why head of diversity Danielle Brown can claim that “Google fosters an open environment where all views are welcomed” – and yet specify it’s only so long as those views are not contrary to the company’s Code of Conduct (Crane, 2017). As Damore sees it, Google’s deliberate effort to diversify its workforce is in itself discriminatory.
Damore titled his report “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and prophetically started out by saying, “If we can’t have an honest discussion about this then we can never truly solve the problem” (Damore, 2017). He ran his ideas by some colleagues and edited his message based on their feedback. Damore backed up his arguments with research, statistics, and footnotes, just as he had been taught to do when working on teams. Damore offered suggestions for improvement, actually calling for greater diversity of views and non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap, even while concluding that there are inevitable differences between men and women due to biology. Still, he was slammed for being sexist and accused of violating company policy by perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes – despite the fact that science supports his statements.
Ironically, rather than addressing Damore’s concerns through open dialogue, which Google supposedly take great pride in, management abruptly fired him. Consequently, what was seen as an attempt to silence an employee became a public relations disaster. CEO Sundar Pichai had to come back early from his vacation due to the controversy. The incident started a widespread debate on the effectiveness of diversity programs, the limits of free speech in the workplace, and whether individual employees have a right to hold views that are inconsistent with the mainstream.
As foreshadowed in Damore’s memo, perhaps we should be more concerned about viewpoint diversity than gender diversity. Because ultimately, how can one rightly champion diversity without allowing diversity of thought? Real diversity in an organization encourages independent and creative thinking, while sameness fosters an absence of critical thinking and a failure to see different perspectives. Rather than inviting diversity of opinion, Google’s diversity training backfired and became Google Groupthink. Damore wrote a reasonable, well-researched report that should have caused the executives to question some of their policies. Instead, the way Damore was treated goes against what the company says it stands for.