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Psychological Safety

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Are your retrospectives plagued by groupthink?

Retrium Team

A retrospective where no one speaks is about as useful as an NBA playoff game where no one plays. Yep, it’s that useless. Just a room full of silence and stares, as if the facilitator is speaking a foreign language.

Then there’s the retrospective full of yes-men (and women), or those that agree with others simply for the sake of agreement. They all seem really on board with everything that one person is talking about, so they must actually agree and feel the same way, right?

Wrong. 🛑

If this reminds you of your own retrospectives, then your team is experiencing a case of groupthink.

What is a groupthink?

If your team is constantly jumping on the bandwagon and fresh, innovative ideas are lacking, then your team may be adopting a pack mentality. When all members of your team agree, it sets a status quo that is difficult to challenge.

The term groupthink was coined by Irving Janis, a Psychologist at Yale University. Janis began his career studying decision-making, mainly in the form of challenging habitual acts like smoking and dieting. Once he began studying group dynamics, he was able to recognize this commonality. Janis explains this phenomenon:

“Groupthink describes how groups of people are able to reach a compromise or consensus through conformity, without thoroughly analyzing ideas or concepts.”

He followed this discovery with further research that proved peer pressure’s connection to conformity and how detrimental it is to a group’s cognitive abilities.

To imagine this on an even greater scale, let’s explore the Bay of Pigs, for it was the readings on this very topic that sparked something in Irving Janis' mind.

He wondered how people as intelligent as John F. Kennedy and his advisors could have been “taken in by such a stupid, patchwork plan as the one presented to them by the CIA representatives.” Through this observation, he realized that the need to show consensus could be potentially devastating.

Does this sound like the current state of affairs on your team? When it comes down to discussions, how does groupthink affect your retrospectives?

How groupthink affects a retrospective

The most effective retrospectives encourage all participants to speak up and share their opinions. When groupthink is the norm though, head nodding and even silence is a common response.

An environment where people are under pressure to state their open and honest opinions in front of fellow coworkers is a breeding ground for groupthink.

Why is this? Groupthink goes hand in hand with a lack of psychological safety. Amy Edmondson coined the concept of psychological safety in the 1990’s when she observed how companies build trusting and safe workplace when she was a Harvard Business School Professor.

Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

In this case, if no one in your retrospective feels comfortable to share alternative ideas or beliefs to that of the group, then they fear being rejected or pegged as the one who has the “bad ideas.”

In the Asch-Conformity Experiment, Solomon Asch discovered through group experiments that people conform because they want to fit in the group and because they think that the group is better informed than they are. In the experiment, a group of confederates agreed to all agree on the wrong answer to a question, unbeknownst to the lone subject.

The group discussed and gave two correct answers then they gave the wrong answer. Instead of challenging the group, the subject picked a wrong answer. After the experiment, the subject explained that they knew the answer was wrong but went along with the conforming answer anyway in order to avoid being ridiculed.

In Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment, Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann developed the eight main symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger and become overly optimistic
  2. Collective Rationalization: Members discredit the idea and warning signs of group thinking.
  3. Illusion of Morality: Members believe morally their decisions are correct, ignoring the ethical consequences that their decisions may have.
  4. Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes for outsider rivals.
  5. Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure others in the group who express arguments against the group’s stereotypes and view that opposition as disloyalty.
  6. Self-Censorship: Members withhold dissenting views and counter-arguments.
  7. Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group’s decision; silence is seen as consent.
  8. Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves the role of protecting the group from adverse information that may threaten the group’s complacency.

Many of these symptoms can be related to that of stereotypical high school social groups that make decisions based on their image and not their future.

However, this pack-mentality can be much more impactful to your retrospectives than it is to high school theater kids.

In another research study of hospital teams by Amy Edmondson, she found that the better the hospital teams were, the more mistakes they made.

Sounds peculiar, right? 🤔 After further investigation, she found that those teams were not making more mistakes, they were admitting to more mistakes. These teams felt more comfortable speaking honestly in order to improve the workplace without feeling like their jobs may be on the line for admitting their faults.

How to avoid groupthink in your retrospectives

Since groupthink can easily spring up in your retrospectives, it’s imperative to learn how to prevent it from plaguing yours.

  1. Make teams aware of groupthink and what the causes are. The first step to getting rid of any problem is admitting you have one, so awareness is key.
  2. If you’re the facilitator, remind everyone at the start of the retrospective that honest if the best policy and that all thoughts and ideas matter.
  3. Invite outside industry experts or different members of your organization to provide their input and serve as a non-biased member of the group.
  4. Maintain anonymity in the retrospectives. One of the main ways to reduce groupthink and to encourage psychological safety in your retrospectives is to allow the group to submit ideas and feedback anonymously. Retrium was built with this in mind — see for yourself through a free trial.

(Group) Think about it

Retrospectives are the most powerful way to encourage open and honest conversation and paths toward improvement.

A workplace that is inclusive and accepting of each person’s opinions, is one that breeds innovative ideas and high-performing employees. So the moment you hear your team say, “But that’s how we’ve always done it,” then you know it’s time to challenge the status quo.

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