The Answer is: Vanilla. Avoid Groupthink in Your Meetings

It was 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon as I was sitting down to meeting #6 of the day.  I knew about half of the meeting attendees, including the organizer.  Though I wasn’t an expert on the meeting topic, if this team felt a new project needed to be spun up my team would support it.  I knew there were a few different opinions on the topic so I expected this to be a lively conversation.

When the meeting started, however, one person gave her opinion and everyone in the room agreed.  No discussion.  No debate.  Heads nodding YES is all I saw.  What the hell!  An hour ago one attendee told me something different, and there they sat saying nothing!  I felt I was in the twilight zone.

I realized this group had worked with each other for over a year.  They were friends outside of work.  But because of this group’s cohesiveness, people didn’t want to “rock the boat.”  Even the organizer, who manages everyone in the room but me, was impartial to the decision.

If I put these 8 attendees in a room and said “Pick your favorite ice cream” and the first person said vanilla, I’m convinced they would ALL pick vanilla.

Getting groupthink out of meetings is tough.  It’s especially tough when you have a team that’s been together for a long time and members are afraid voicing an opinion.  What if they said something that upset others?

So how do you keep groupthink out of meetings?  Here are a few suggestions:

Bring in an Outside Resource.  Folks in technology can probably relate to this; image an IT team where there’s way to much cohesiveness and groupthink runs rampant.  How do you mitigate that?  Bring in an Enterprise Architect!  I haven’t met an EA that doesn’t bring in what I call the “right level of tension” to ensure all options are reviewed.

Pick Someone to Argue With You.  This is one of my favorites.  When I was on my first church council no one argued.  Ever.  As a matter of fact, no one talked much at all.  So one day, the pastor asked if I would like to challenge what he said and come across argumentative.  That meeting was 3.5 hours instead of our usual one because when I argued with the pastor, others would chime in.  Before you know it, there were lots of ideas about a topic and we came up with better solutions.  I’ve used this idea a few times since then successfully.

Email Options Before the Meeting.  Prior to the meeting, email out a few options to be reviewed by the team.  Don’t use 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C as some people may see that as the priority.  Instead, bullet point them out and let everyone know we’ll discuss these in greater detail at the meeting.

As a Leader, Shut Up.  I’ve seen too many managers and leaders come to meetings and say “This is the way I think it would be done.  What do you think?”  Of course no one will say anything.  If you’re in a leadership position, shut up and let everyone else talk first.  Be mindful of your non-verbals also.  Once everyone’s had their say, then put add your input.

Groupthink is everywhere, and no place is it more noticeable than in meetings.  Don’t have everyone pick Vanilla.  Instead, find ways to get ideas flowing and options on the table for discussion or debate.  Sometimes you have to be creative, but in the long run it’s worth it.

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