Playing devil’s advocate: How to avoid groupthink in sport environmentsAugust 17, 2022
“This is how we’ve always done it.”
You’ve heard that phrase before. Whether you’ve said it or heard it said, it’s clear that groupthink is present in every corner of our society. When we fail to consider fresh perspectives in favour of tradition during decision making, we limit ourselves and our abilities. Take it from Roger Bannister, the first man to run a 4-minute mile. He defied all predictions when he abandoned the conventional training regimens of the time and set a new world record (Taylor, 2018). In this blog, we describe the characteristics of groupthink behaviour and explain why it’s important for sport organizations to avoid.
Decision making is an important process for any group, including sport teams and organizations. In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis became fascinated with the question of what leads groups to make disastrous decisions. Janis defined the term groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when members strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Sports teams and organizations are vulnerable to conformity because as humans, we have a social need to belong to groups and a strong desire to fit in (Levine, 2012). But when this cohesion and conformity is taken to the extreme, it can lead to groupthink. With groupthink, the desire to fit in is so strong that any concerns about decisions being made are pushed aside in favour of absolute consensus. Consequently, it is possible that team members end up supporting bad decisions (Janis, 1972).
The following conditions can lead to groupthink:
- Cohesion (leads to a pressure to conform)
- Insulation (team members don’t know much about outside groups)
- Autocratic leadership (leaders don’t question any bias)
- Homogenous membership (lack of diversity on the team)
- Nature of task (insufficient time to make decisions, so group members opt for familiarity)
The problem with groupthink
Groupthink can take many forms. Examples include only recruiting athletes or hiring staff that think a certain way, discouraging newer players from voicing their perspectives, or downplaying the value of new ideas. There could also be instances that result in unsafe environments either physically (for example, excessive training regimes) or psychologically (for example, hazing or bullying) when athletes are afraid or unwilling to speak up and share an opinion.
Groupthink results in censoring alternative ideas and causes team members to hold stereotypical views of anyone with opposing or outside opinions (Janis, 1972). Often when groupthink occurs, a team will overestimate their own morality and invulnerability, as they believe in the illusion that what they are deciding is right and unanimous (Fernandez, 2007). Assuming your team automatically “knows best” can set the stage for mistakes, wrong decisions and risky actions that may have otherwise been avoided (Boone, 2005).
This is not to say that making decisions as a group is inherently problematic or that groupthink exists in all group settings. However, the advantages of making decisions as a team are minimized when social pressures of conformity are present. Avoiding such features can limit the opportunity for groupthink and promote healthy, clear communication and innovative ways of doing things.
How to avoid groupthink
- Champion a devil’s advocate position (or as Janis called it, a critical evaluator): Create an environment in which athletes feel comfortable and confident enough to critique ideas without a fear of backlash (Janis, 1972; MacDougall, 1997).
- Encourage diversity on your teams: Diversity not only facilitates group performance but also reduces team conformity, encouraging different perspectives and opinions (Fernandez, 2007).
- Establish multiple groups to work on decisions separately: Different groups working in parallel will come up with a diverse set of ideas to contribute to the discussion that can then be had as a group (Janis, 1972; Rose, 2011).
- Bring in an expert: Bringing in an outside perspective (for example, a trainer, coach from another team, professor/researcher) can provide an alternative point of view and challenge the values/norms of the group (Rose, 2011).
- Remain impartial: Administrators, coaches or anyone in positions of authority on teams or in sport organizations should refrain from voicing their opinions and personal preferences in initial stages of decision-making. This will limit bias and enable team members to come up with their own ideas (Janis, 1972; Fernandez, 2007).
Occupying a position of authority in sport means having the responsibility to care for the wellbeing of athletes and colleagues and creating a safe environment in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves.
The key takeaway is to go against the limits of traditional ways of thinking in sport. What changed in 1954 that suddenly gave so many runners the ability to run a 4-minute mile after Roger did? Was it evolution? A feat of genetic engineering? No, they simply left behind the symptoms of groupthink held by the running community that told them a 4-minute mile wasn’t possible.
About the Author(s)
Erin Locke graduated in the class of 2022, receiving a BScH in Kinesiology with distinction from the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. After a year off for work and travel, she will pursue further education and a career in healthcare and wellness.
Luc Martin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. His research interests lie in the areas of positive youth development and team dynamics in sport. Erin completed this blog as an assignment in his KNPE 363 Team Dynamics course.
Boone, T. (2005). Too much conformity leads to groupthink and failure. Professionalization of Exercise Physiology Online, 8(9). https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/TooMuchConformityLeadsToGroupthink.html
Fernandez, C. P. (2007). Creating thought diversity: the antidote to groupthink. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 13(6), 670-671. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.PHH.0000296146.09918.30
Levine, J.M. (Ed.). (2012). Group processes. Taylor & Francis Group.
MacDougall, C. & Baum, F. (1997). The devil’s advocate: A strategy to avoid groupthink and stimulate discussion in focus groups. Qualitative Health Research, 7(4), 532–541. https://doi.org/10.1177/104973239700700407
Rose, J. D. (2011). Diverse perspectives on the groupthink theory–a literary review. Emerging Leadership Journeys, 4(1), 37-57. https://www.dentonisd.org/cms/lib/tx21000245/centricity/domain/5139/groupthink%20article.pdf
Taylor, B. (2018, March 9). What breaking the 4-minute mile taught us about the limits of conventional thinking. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/what-breaking-the-4-minute-mile-taught-us-about-the-limits-of-conventional-thinking
The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.