In this post, I am speaking from the perspective of industrial and organizational psychology (i.e., I/O psychology, or how people think and perform in professional groups and work place settings). At times, I formally wear an I/O hat, such as when doing talks or team building. But, work place issues also come up quite often in my counseling work with individual clients and professional couples.

Many people are familiar with the mental phenomenon of “groupthink” — an unhealthy atmosphere of conformity within a group that discourages free thinking and blind the group to the negative effects of its actions. (Cult behavior is an extreme form of groupthink. Here are some other symptoms.) But, in my work, I see many clients and groups who are also dealing with the related problem of “groupfeel.” Let me explain.

“Groupthink” was first studied by Irving Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University. Janis worked with the U.S. Army, among other clients, to understand how the military made good — and sometimes bad — decisions. “Groupthink” was identified as a threat to good decision-making. When a group is in a high-stress situation, sometimes the pressure to agree and act quickly stifles the person who would say, “But wait a moment. What about X?” Other times a rush toward quick answers is unwittingly encouraged by a leader who adopts the old “Don’t bring me a problem unless you have a solution” approach.

In dysfunctional work environments, especially where people are working under time pressure, “groupthink” can emerge as an unhealthy group dynamic. A work team can get focused on the wrong decision path too quickly. Outside groups are not consulted. Alternative paths to a good result are eliminated out of hand. One of the hallmarks of groupthink is that it leads to “false consensus.” Other viable routes are ignored completely, so their value is never fully understood. The team suffers from a sense of false confidence that can come back to bite it when a real risk becomes an actual disaster.

In high functioning teams, all members share information that is unique to them. The ideas in these teams are constantly evolving. Dysfunctional teams tend to recycle old information.

What is Groupfeel?

Right alongside “groupthink” is something I call “groupfeel.” This is the group’s tendency to be limited by the emotional blocks of its members. Smart team members learn not to speak up lest they be seen as “negative” or “contrary” (not “team-players”). Others hold off due to insecurity. They want foremost to be accepted and liked. They don’t believe they have the status to speak up. They worry they lack enough data to back up their ideas.

It’s important to understand that people bring their whole selves — including their emotions — to work. No one is 100% rational all the time. This is why even when team members have “all the data,” there can still be stress and conflict at work.

Many of my clients have high-pressure, high-stress jobs. They are expected to produce successful results in very short time frames. For them, groupfeel may manifest in things like smart people not trusting their boss to give them credit where credit is due. They hold back their own possible solution to the problem — which might be the best one.

Perhaps “getting along” is a spoken or unspoken team norm, and so people wait for the meeting to be over to present their “different” idea to the boss privately. Or some team members – who may be quieter or more thoughtful than other members — find that their ideas simply aren’t acknowledged at all. And that’s when a good idea — perhaps the RIGHT idea — dies, along with a little bit of the soul of the team member who proposed it.

Groupfeel can be just as dysfunctional as groupthink. Because it may lie a layer below what appears to be happening in a meeting, it is even harder to address than groupthink. Usually, people are not crying or accusing each other or putting up physical barriers to protect themselves. But all those emotions – fear, mistrust, insecurity – may be present in a seemingly “harmonious” team meeting.

Addressing Groupthink

All work settings have their issues, and in an era of accelerating change, sometimes we have to accept that “SNAFU” is the best state of affairs we can hope for. (As an aside, see Corinne Purtil’s humorous and enlightening essay on “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck.” (Hint: Cluster’s tend to be marked by “a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”)

Purtil highlights the work of cognitive researcher Gary Klein. One way to address groupthink is to hold what Klein calls a “premortem.” This is where half of a work team is explicitly assigned the task of identifying and analyzing all the risks to a chosen path before it is taken. In this case, they aren’t getting in the way of the team. They are positively helping to avoid risks that might otherwise go unnoticed — until too late.

Addressing Groupfeel

The best way to address groupfeel is to foster the emotional intelligence of the group — the members’ ability to understand and express emotions in themselves and others. And, of one my tried and true methods to help someone develop their emotional intelligence is to exercise and expand their emotional vocabulary, the “feelings words” they use. To do this, we use an actual feelings list, and in two ways: (1) to retrospectively identify and express the feelings someone had in a situation (e.g., anxious, irritated, incapable) and (2) to proactively identify the feelings they want to cultivate, now and in future situations (e.g., feeling grounded, grateful, brave, determined).

(By the way, a feeling is, technically, the word we use for the emotional states we experience in our bodies. All sentient animals have emotional reactions and it’s impossible for a living human to have “no emotions.” But, if a person’s expressive vocabulary is quite limited, we can say they have “no feelings.”)

Much like the way learning the vocabulary of a new language opens new opportunities for expression and collaboration, so too does learning a new feelings vocabulary.

It’s important to know that both groupthink and groupfeel may be operating in your work environment. Everyone at work is human. The bottom line is that if the “problem” your team is trying to solve is that your workplace is on fire, no one would hold back or stay silent or wait to talk to the boss later. Your team would run for the fire extinguishers AND call the Fire Department AND pull the fire alarm to get everyone out safely. You would act in the best interests of everyone. That’s what a healthy team does.

Do you feel like “groupfeel” and its challenges are holding you back? Let’s talk.

— Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.


Resources and References

Psychologists for Social Responsibility has a great summary of groupthink and its “symptoms”

For a overview of the research on group think, see Irving L. Janis (1982).  Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Sabina Nawaz (2017, Sept 1). The Problem with Saying “Don’t Bring Me Problems, Bring Me Solutions”. Harvard Business Review.

Anita Woolley, Thomas W. Malone and Christopher F. Chabris (2015, Jan. 16). Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others. The New York Times.

Corinne Purtil (2018, March 16). “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuckQuartz at Work.

You can find good lists of feelings words at the Hoffman Institute Foundation or BayNVC.

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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