Negotiating Groupthink as a Business Analyst

Sep 10, 2023

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect~ Mark Twain

About half a century ago, a Yale university psychologist- Irving Janis published an article that described how a group of clever people engaged to solve a problem can arrive at an excellent decision one time and a disastrous one at another time. Fascinated by such blunder, Janis set out to identify a psychological method that could explain this disastrous facet of decision making and termed this syndrome ‘groupthink.’ Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consent overrides people's rational desire to present alternative courses of action, appraise a position, or express an unpopular opinion. This desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem solving.

Although Janis formulated this concept in the 20th century, the roots of groupthink trace back to early religious narratives, as found in texts like the Bible. An illustrative case of groupthink emerges from the story of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. During a festival, it was customary to grant amnesty to a prisoner chosen by the crowd. In this instance, two prisoners were at the centre of attention: Barabbas, a notorious criminal, and Jesus, a political prisoner also known as the Messiah. Manipulated by the chief priests, the crowd clamoured for Barabbas's release over Jesus, succumbing to the pressure. The irrationality of this event prompted Pilate to repeat the question: "Which of these two do you want me to release to you?" However, the crowd persisted in chanting 'Barabbas.' The governor found himself so confounded by their response that he symbolically washed his hands, seeking to absolve himself of this decision. Here, the power of collective agreement superseded reason, exemplifying the grip of groupthink.

Other instances of groupthink are deeply embedded in history, notably seen in events like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, the tragic space shuttle Challenger disaster, and the Enron-Arthur Andersen Scandal. In all these cases, rational thinking gave way to the sway of group consensus. Considering one of humanity's recent feats—private space travel—let's delve further into the concept using the space shuttle disaster as an illustration.

The space shuttle disaster of 1986, within the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program, serves as a poignant example. This catastrophe claimed the lives of seven astronauts on board. Investigations conducted after the crash unveiled the failure's origin in the O-ring seals. These sealing components, critical for preventing the escape of liquids or gases, malfunctioned due to the extreme cold temperatures prevailing on the morning of the launch. Specifically, two rubber O-rings, meant to seal sections of the rocket booster, failed due to the chilling conditions. The probing Commission's findings attributed the accident to NASA's organizational culture and decision-making procedures, which played pivotal roles. The agency's disregard for its own safety protocols was evident. Although NASA's managers were cognizant of the design flaws in the O-rings, they failed to address the issue adequately. Additionally, engineers' cautions about the peril posed by the low temperatures of that morning were dismissed, and these critical concerns were inadequately communicated to higher-ups. Regrettably, the fixation on meeting timelines and media coverage superseded the priority of astronaut safety. Once again, the formidable grip of groupthink prevailed over rationality, leading to disastrous consequences. These historical accounts underscore the potency of groupthink's influence in dampening clear-headed judgment, even in the face of grave challenges such as space exploration.

Negotiating Groupthink as a Business Analyst

Having gained a comprehensive grasp of the concept of groupthink, one might logically assume that the lessons from history would resound over time, raising awareness about its dangers. However, recent times have starkly demonstrated the persistent and potent influence of this misstep. The current instances of anti-mask and anti-vaccination protests amidst the grim backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic serve as a striking illustration of groupthink's pervasive and compelling force. Media accounts detailing the actions of non-compliant groups shed light on the circumstances that often give rise to groupthink dynamics. Thus, while we may pride ourselves on being independent thinkers, it's crucial to recognize that the sway of groupthink exerts an influence in certain facets of our lives. As social creatures, we are inherently predisposed to some manifestation of groupthink within the diverse tapestry of social contexts we inhabit. It's a common tendency to shy away from being outliers, further underscoring the intricate interplay between individual agency and the gravitational pull of collective thought patterns.

Now, let us shift gears and walk down the classic management corridor in search of some ancient wisdom on groupthinks legitimized path within contemporary business landscapes. Henri Fayol, revered as the progenitor of modern management, unveiled his seminal "14 Principles of Management," among which lies the concept of "Esprit de Corps," encapsulated by the maxim 'unity is strength.' This principle underscores the belief that nurturing a collective sense of pride within a unit, combined with individual commitment to a shared purpose, culminates in a unified entity capable of achieving outcomes beyond the mere sum of its constituent parts. However, even though originally conceived as a means of fostering unity, this notion has, to some extent, been misconstrued, inadvertently ushering in a culture that prioritizes unity at the expense of genuine harmony. Many of us find ourselves members of groups that frequently face decision-making situations. In the realm of most business group dynamics, deviating from the prevailing consensus is often deemed unconventional or unprofessional. Such deviation could potentially earn one the label of a dissenting team member, even leading to ostracization. Implicitly, the belief holds that the more camaraderie pervades the group's members, the more harmonious the collective's interactions will be.

To highlight the interplay between unity and harmony, we can turn to the realm of music, where the orchestra serves as a compelling metaphor. Here, distinct musical voices merge to craft a seamless ensemble. The flutist, violinist, trombonist, clarinetist, and harpist, each contributing unique notes, harmonize to produce a melodious composition. However, drawing a parallel to the realm of groupthink, the potential advantages stemming from diverse viewpoints might become overshadowed. Just as the orchestra's diverse instruments create a harmonious symphony, embracing diverse perspectives can enrich decision-making processes, mitigating the risk of groupthink's stifling influence.

Now let us explore how to negotiate groupthink as a business analyst in the dynamic world of business analysis where successful outcomes are often achieved through effective collaboration and decision-making. Recognizing and navigating groupthink is vital for business analysts to ensure that their analysis and recommendations are unbiased, well-rounded, and based on objective evidence. Mindful of this, challenges posed by groupthink for Business Analysts are numerous, but for the purpose of this article, I note three key ones.

Challenge Issue
1. Limited idea generation When groupthink prevails, team members may feel hesitant to express unconventional ideas, resulting in a limited pool of potential solutions and missed opportunities for innovative approaches.
2. Confirmation bias In a groupthink scenario, team members may seek out information that supports their existing beliefs and disregard conflicting data, leading to biased analysis and conclusions.
3. Suppressed dissent Team members may fear challenging the consensus, leading to unspoken concerns and vital issues being left unaddressed, which could later lead to project failures or setbacks.

Recognizing the challenges that groupthink poses for business analysts provides a crucial foundation for implementing effective strategies to negotiate its impact. As professionals responsible for informed decision-making and project success, business analysts can proactively navigate these challenges by adopting approaches that promote open dialogue, embracing diverse perspectives, and introducing structured processes. In this vein, let us explore some ways to negotiate groupthink as a business analyst. Through these proactive measures, business analysts can harness the collective wisdom of their teams while steering clear of the pitfalls that groupthink can bring.

Negotiation Strategies
Cultivate a Diverse and Inclusive Environment: As a business analyst, we should foster an atmosphere that encourages diverse perspectives and welcome constructive criticism. This creates a safe space where team members feel comfortable challenging ideas and proposing alternative solutions. Promote Devil's Advocacy:
Assign someone to play the role of devil's advocate during meetings and discussions. This encourages critical evaluation of ideas and surfaces potential flaws or weaknesses in the proposed solutions.
Encourage Anonymous Feedback: Provide a platform for team members to offer feedback anonymously. This approach can help individuals share concerns without fear of retribution, leading to more open and honest discussions. Facilitate Brainstorming Sessions: Conduct brainstorming sessions that focus on generating a wide range of ideas without immediate evaluation. This approach encourages creativity and helps overcome the fear of judgment.
Seek External Opinions: Involve stakeholders from outside the core team to provide independent perspectives and insights. External voices can challenge assumptions and break the echo chamber effect. Data-Driven Decision Making: Base decisions on objective data and analysis rather than solely relying on subjective opinions. Presenting concrete evidence can help shift the focus from consensus to facts. Encourage Continuous Learning: Foster a culture of continuous learning within the team. Encourage team members to explore new concepts, share knowledge, and attend training sessions to develop critical thinking skills.


As a business analyst, navigating groupthink is essential for delivering valuable insights and driving successful projects. By fostering a culture of inclusivity, promoting diverse perspectives, and encouraging critical thinking, business analysts can overcome the challenges of groupthink. Remember, effective negotiation of groupthink empowers teams to make informed decisions, enhances problem-solving capabilities, and ultimately contributes to improved project outcomes. Embrace these strategies, and you'll be well-equipped to lead your team towards successful and innovative solutions.

Olam Osah, Sr. Business AnalystAuthor: Olam Osah, Sr. Business Analyst

Olam Osah is a Senior Business Analyst at DVT with experience spanning a decade in the private and public sectors. He holds a PhD in Information Systems (IS) from the University of Cape Town and master's and honours degrees in IS from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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Sep 10, 2023


MacSteve posted on Monday, September 18, 2023 11:12 AM
Nice article Olam.
You are perhaps aware of the work of psychologist Lynda Ray on psychological safety, enabling environments where the desirable things you highlight can be nurtured.
It also reminds me of the observation, that the people least capable of seeing faults in a piece of work are its authors.
Your observations are so important for autonomous, self managing, teams.
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