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Identifying and managing groupthink in workplace investigations

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Several of my investigations have led me to reflect on the phenomenon of “groupthink,” and how it impacts the workplace and intrudes upon workplace investigations. Groupthink is a term that was first coined by social psychologist Irving Janis, and refers to a group that, when working together, strives for harmony and consensus above all else. This can emphasize conformity at the expense of optimal decision making, with group members ignoring critical information in order to demonstrate loyalty and remain cohesive to their group.

In many workplaces, it’s common for employers to encourage employees to focus on working as a “team” and being “aligned.”  Employees may also have the desire to fit in with their colleagues and superiors, and may not want to risk compromising their positions at work. This can apply to both work product, as well as working relationships. I often hear people describe their workplace akin to high school social circles, with the rampant gossip included.  The role that this culture can play in a workplace that you are investigating may be negligible or operate in the periphery; but it may also be pervasive, with those perceptions or gossip being as capable of preempting the initial claim as they are of influencing your investigation.

Groupthink can directly impact workplace investigations by compromising the accuracy and validity of the evidence of the parties and witnesses. It often becomes apparent that those you interview may have had discussions about one of the parties involved and come to a consensus that they simply do not like them and do not want to work with them. This may become exacerbated once they are aware of an investigation, with employees picking sides or committing to their stance on a particular person. When your investigation requires you to probe these stances further, it may become apparent that their perceptions are based more on speculation or what they’ve heard from others rather than their own observations. This could be an indicator that groupthink is at play, which can distort perceptions and evidence, and ultimately, the validity of your findings if not recognized and managed. In these cases, you will need to consider the relationship dynamics between the parties and witnesses when assessing their evidence.

Groupthink can be difficult to identify, but as an investigator, it is important to identify groupthink and be cognizant of how it can taint the evidence, rather than simply accepting it at face value.


1. Select an investigator without ties to the group

If you have identified and recognized signs of groupthink in your workplace, select an investigator that is far removed from those involved or consider whether to hire an external investigator.

2. Focus on firsthand knowledge

There is power in numbers; and it is easy to be swayed if you are consistently hearing a version of events from multiple people involved in the investigation. In these circumstances, it is important to consider what their perceptions are based on and question the source of that information. Their perception of events will become much less reliable if you determine that they are based on speculation, gossip, or rumour, as opposed to their direct observations. Keep in mind that several consistent accounts do not make something true, especially if they all heard that information from the same (questionable) source. That said, also recognize when there is merit in the evidence presented by multiple parties and groupthink is not at play.

3. Critically assess witness credibility

In a workplace, witnesses will often have a pre-existing relationship with the parties involved in an investigation. If there are noteworthy relationship and power dynamics at play, you will need to consider how these dynamics may impact the credibility of the evidence provided. In these scenarios, the first point to consider is that witnesses do not have to be neutral in order to be credible. In some cases, those who have interpersonal issues with a colleague will still be able to recount their observations in an objective and balanced manner. Others may be unable to directly answer questions in an impartial manner because of their personal biases, and in those cases, you would likely place very little weight on their evidence. There may also be cases where a witness’ evidence is credible for the most part, except when they are speaking about a particular person or situation. In those cases, you may find them credible in providing evidence in some circumstances but not others. Overall, it is important to be mindful of the relationship dynamics at play and be flexible in your credibility assessment.

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