Leading Teams: How to Avoid “Groupthink”

School and teacher leadership coach Elena Aguilar is the author of The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities that Transform Schools. This article supports all educators who find themselves leading teams.

elena-aguilar-150By Elena Aguilar

Decision-making conversations can get stuck for many reasons. Some of these can be because of low levels of trust in the team or unproductive ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conversations can get stuck because our leadership skills are under-developed and we’re not sure how to facilitate a conversation.

Sometimes conversations hit a wall because there’s a lack of an agreed upon mission and vision for the team or organization. And sometimes conversations are challenging because team members are reluctant to share their true thoughts. Let’s explore what that can be about.

Groupthink is a byproduct of weak trust

Groupthink happens when people are afraid of the consequences of sharing their real thoughts and feelings. When this happens and people withhold their ideas, there is a danger that the decision won’t be the best one or the most innovative or creative.

It also indicates a low level of trust in the group and a fear of conflict. People start to feel that it’s better to be quiet, go with the flow, and not challenge each other. Groupthink is one of the major causes of poor decision making.


How can we detect groupthink?

How can you tell if groupthink is going on in a team? First, take a look at the context.

Within hierarchical systems, it’s natural for people to be concerned about speaking out. This is exacerbated if you’re in a school or organization in which leadership is particularly authoritative or directive.

In addition:

◆ If there’s no regular practice of giving and receiving feedback, groupthink can flourish.

◆ If team members feel insecure about their jobs or positions, they can be reluctant to speak out.

◆ If there’s a history of conflict in the group or unresolved conflict between two members, then you can also predict that there might be a reluctance to share thoughts and feelings.

◆ Finally, if the team doesn’t have much experience with creative thinking or problem solving, they might lack the skills and knowledge for doing so.

Usually, as facilitators, we can tell when people aren’t sharing their real thoughts. We can often see it in their body language—the absence of nodding heads, the distracted visual attention. We hear side conversations or mutterings of disagreements during breaks. We feel the lack of energy.

What can we do?

If you spot these behaviors in a group you’re working with, you may need to directly address this with the group by asking questions such as, “To what extent do people in this group feel free to speak their minds? Are opposing views seen as positive or negative by members of this team? Have there ever been repercussions for people who oppose a group opinion or idea presented by a leader?”

Inviting members into awareness that groupthink has taken over their team and inviting them into a discussion of this is a first start. It can be empowering for a group when you are transparent about your leadership moves and when you invite them in to make decisions about how the group process will run.

If there’s a positional leader in the team (e.g., an administrator), you might need to consider whether their leadership style is having a negative impact on the group. If there are some who feel threatened by this leader, then they may withhold their thoughts as long as that person is in the room.

You may need to talk to the administrator about his or her presence. That might feel scary to do—and you may not actually be able to ask the leader to step out—but it might be what’s causing the groupthink.


Sharing divergent ideas

You’ll also need to explicitly ask for, scaffold, and model the sharing of divergent ideas. And as soon as team members start to offer them, you’ll need to acknowledge the risk they took and the positive impact it can have on the group’s discussion. As a group gains confidence in its ability to engage in productive conflict and useful discussions, the groupthink will dissipate.

Our goal as team leaders is deceptively simple: We create the conditions in which healthy teams can make good decisions. However, the broad context in which we work is not necessarily conducive to this goal.

In much of the national discourse, educators are blamed for far more than their share of problems in our country. Federal and state policies harshly penalize teachers and schools for not meeting absurd performance expectations. In many states and schools, teachers no longer even have union representation that might help ensure their right to a job.

There’s tremendous fear of speaking out against policies—and this breeds groupthink. It’s important to acknowledge that we have a lot to contend with when we’re trying to create a safe space for discussion.

This article is adapted from The Art of Coaching Teams. Download Chapter 1 to learn Aguilar’s definition of great teams, find tools to explore team effectiveness, and discover when teams are truly needed. Also see “Tips for Coaching Teacher Teams” at Edutopia.


art-of-coaching-teamsElena Aguilar is a teacher, coach, writer and leader who has worked in the education field for 20 years. During her 12-year teaching career, she worked in elementary, middle and high school, “with a passion and preference for teaching history, reading and writing to sixth graders.” In the Oakland Unified School District, she led a team of instructional and leadership coaches who worked with that district’s most challenged middle schools.

Aguilar is the author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and the recently published The Art of Coaching Teams: Building Resilient Communities that Transform Schools. Follow her on Twitter (@artofcoaching1) and visit her website to find out more about her work as a coaching consultant.


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