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How to fight the groupthink that happens when we work virtually

Groupthink is more common when all communication is happening digitally. Here’s how to promote thinking creatively instead.

How to fight the groupthink that happens when we work virtually
[Source Photos: iStock]
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Most of us are well aware that groupthink—the phenomenon in which decision-making is ruled by the ease of conformity—is bad for business. When our workplace falls into groupthink, we become complacent and fail to innovate, either out of intimidation, apathy, or both.  

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As many of us moved to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, some business leaders suggested that the break in routine, paired with exciting new collaboration technology, would nullify the stuffiness, outdated formalities, and tension that often leads to groupthink in a traditional meeting. 

But it didn’t. Groupthink got worse. 

It turns out that digital communication channels like Zoom are a perfect breeding ground for the building blocks of groupthink—complacency, conversations that are dominated by one or two people, and a (sometimes unconscious) underlying desire to just get it over with. In the end, online collaboration has even more groupthink than traditional meetings. I call this rising phenomenon “Zoomthink.”

Here’s why virtual communication encourages groupthink, and what teams can do to fight it: 

Zooms are rushed and exhausting

Many of us feel more rushed during virtual meetings, in part because it’s harder to stay focused from behind our computers. What’s more, a lot of us feel more burnt out by virtual meetings than we would with face-to-face meetings. It can be overwhelming to handle the constant awkwardness of silence or a glitch, the pressure of being scrutinized closely by distant colleagues, and the simple physical exhaustion that comes with staring at a screen all day. All of this breeds the psychological unease that makes speaking up feel burdensome and daunting. 

We assume we’re on the same page when we’re not 

We’ve suddenly lost access to the traditional body language signals that we relied on to assert and distinguish our thinking, and it turns out that digital body language is not always intuitive or universal. For example, I recently hired Jim, as a fully remote worker. I liked our arrangement, in part because of how little oversight he needed. Or so I thought. After three months of Zoom, I told Jim that he was doing a great job and that I hoped he was enjoying it. He responded, “Actually, this isn’t what I thought it’d be.” 

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We were not at all on the same page. I had been giving him unrealistic deadlines; I hadn’t explained his assignments properly over email. For months, I’d thought that the fact that I rarely heard from him meant that we were on the same page. It’s assumptions like these that foster groupthink and disconnect. Because we’d relied too much on digital communication—rather than picking up the phone once in a while—I had been misreading the few digital cues he gave me, and came across as rushed and insensitive as a result.  

A small handful of people usually dominate a meeting

Like any in-person meeting, Zoom meetings are often monopolized by whoever speaks first. What’s more, we find it harder to interrupt each other because of the awkwardness of cutting someone off while on Zoom—somehow it feels worse than doing so in person. The result? Stunted creativity, a lack of diversity in opinion, and an increase in discontent as people start to feel ignored or under-appreciated.

With these hard truths about Zoom (or any video meeting technology) in mind, here are a few things we can do to ensure our virtual meetings aren’t a breeding ground for groupthink. 

1. Prepare to speak up 

As an individual, come to a video meeting prepared with one or two pointed asks or constructive critiques that you can contribute to the meeting. Ask yourself beforehand: Are you saying what you mean, providing necessary detail, and being clear in your ask? Do you describe what the deliverable should look like, the deadlines, and the check-in process? Preparing in advance will make it easier to chime in.  

2. Rotate hosts

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One of the best things I learned consulting with clients to improve connectional intelligence this past year was the value of rotating meeting hosts. Not only is it an easy way to make everyone feel included and valued, but it adds character to our often monotonous meetings.  

3. Create a follow-up opportunity for quieter colleagues 

For some, raising the little blue Zoom hand or daring to unmute themselves while someone else is speaking can be tough. Whether it be anxiety or discomfort with the technology, there are plenty of reasons you may be missing out on great ideas from some of your colleagues. Ask your team to follow up via email or IM with ideas and comments they didn’t get to bring up during the virtual meeting.  

4. Have tools in place for a healthy, representative meeting

Most offices are, of course, still limited in terms of having opportunities for teamwide engagement, but there are ways to encourage more fruitful conversation on video calls. Give quieter team members airtime first, not second, without putting them on the spot. Prompt your virtual team to engage over the phone and on virtual chat tools or email before or after a call for more in depth, one-on-one brainstorming. 

When remote team members contribute to a brainstorm on chat or a virtual whiteboard, give them the opportunity to flesh out their good ideas with the rest of the team. And for team-wide decision making, use polling to ensure you’re considering the full scope of opinions. 

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Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century collaboration and innovation. She is an award winning keynote speaker and the author of forthcoming book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to End Digital Burnout. Follow her on Linkedin.