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A startup team usually consists of a small number of tightly-knit individuals. Every team member has a unique perspective on what success looks like for the startup, and how to achieve that.

This perspective, however, is not always shared among all team members. While discussing different opinions is crucial to creativity and optimal decision-making, a phenomenon called groupthink can undermine this process.

Groupthink is the tendency to accept a perceived group consensus without questioning it regardless if you as an individual think it is correct.

When you get asked ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ the answer is most often a lack of confidence that our input would be welcomed.

Groupthink is a predominant trait of dysfunctional groups, so it is of utmost importance to identify it and root it out of your startup as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk nurturing an unproductive startup culture from the early stages.

Symptoms Of Groupthink

To identify groupthink, the US research psychologist Irving Janis points out eight symptoms that founders should look out for within themselves and the rest of the team.

  1. Illusions of invulnerability – creating a culture of unnaturally high levels of enthusiasm and optimism might lower the risk avoidance within the group and lead to recklessness.
  2. Rationalization of warnings – often seen in small businesses when receiving negative feedback from clients, rationalizations such as “They don’t know how it’s done” and “They aren’t qualified to give feedback” tend to mask the group’s mistakes and encourage their repetition.
  3. Assumed moral righteousness – bad decisions are made on the basis of unquestioned moral grounds.
  4. Labeling competitors as inferior – such internal culture leads to underestimating competing startups and missing the opportunity to learn from them.
  5. Pressure to conform – any team member who challenges the assumed consensus is labeled as disloyal and sabotaging the company. This negative feedback greatly reduces the chances of team-member speaking up, as the social cost is too high.
  6. Self-censorship – members of the team are consciously silencing their own opinions when they deviate from the perceived consensus.
  7. The illusion of unanimity – There is an assumption that silence equals agreement, which is not always the case.
  8. Mindguards – members of the team self-appoint themselves to ‘shield’ the team from information that does not fit the current narrative.

Inclusion, Control, And Affection In Startups

Will Schutz – another US psychologist offers one way of combatting groupthink – the Inclusion/Control/Affection model. It identifies three needs to be fulfilled in order to keep positive emotional energy within the team and build productive culture.


Inclusion – this is the early stage of a team’s sense of belonging and it covers issues such as:

  • Do I want to belong here?
  • Are they going to like me?
  • Am I valuable here?
  • Could I feel at home here?

Team members who lack a sense of belonging may appear apathetic to the startup and the decisions that are made. They would arrive late and leave early, they may display signs of presenteeism. Unsurprisingly, a sense of purpose and belonging is one of the crucial factors for attracting and keeping top startup talent.

Control – the 2nd stage is based on the questions:

  • Who is the ‘real’ leader of the team?
  • Who has the most influence, and how do they influence others?
  • How structured is our work process? Are we just going with the flow?

These questions are related to the implicit or explicit social hierarchy within the team. If someone has an overwhelming social influence, then people might feel reluctant to challenge this person, especially publicly, which might lead to groupthink.

Affection – the last stage is centered around how much closeness between members is wanted and accepted within the team. The main issues are:

  • Is it safe to share how I really feel?
  • Is it right to develop a real friendship here or are these relationships superficial?
  • How much real openness is there in the team?

In order to avoid groupthink, it is crucial to create a culture in which openness is encouraged. The best way to do that is to lead by example – as the founder, you can allow yourself to be vulnerable and to share your feelings, frustrations, and mistakes. This way you would show that this is acceptable behavior, and people wouldn’t feel judged once they speak up.

In summary, overcoming groupthink boils down to building a culture in which speaking up is encouraged, rather than punished. The exact methods you use to achieve this are up to you as a founder and should be chosen based on your circumstances, but the two frameworks mentioned above can serve as a great foundation.


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