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Semantics and groupthink

Groupthink has a lot to do with words and how we use them in different contexts. Read this article to find out how.

In their PhD thesis, Xi Yeng conducted a Latent Semantic Analysis of a design team at an Asian automotive company, searching for the semantic coherence between people of different departments.

Basically, how alike were the intended meanings of words and phrases when communicated from one department to another?

They became less alike, the more distance between each department in the production process.

Coherence decreases with distance

Xi Yeng found that semantic coherence decreases as the functional distance between the team members increases. Essentially, the further apart you are from someone else in a production department, the less likely you are to communicate coherently with that person. [1]

In a 2004 study, Dong, Hill, & Agogino found that team performance positively correlated with greater semantic coherence.

What does this mean for groupthink, generally?

First, it’s not a particularly surprising result. When we consider the social function of groupthink, it makes sense that smaller groups of similarly educated professionals tend towards homogenous semantics.

Don’t use pointless jargon

This becomes a problem within creative or research-based organisations when we use industry-specific, often arbitrary, jargon without realising why we are using these terms.

There are some forms of jargon that are indeed necessary. For example, there is no point in two engineers discussing the ‘big metal thing that converts power into motion’.

It’s an engine.

The term ‘engine’ improves communication because improved communication is its sole function.

Let’s have a look at an arbitrary jargon term: ‘Close of play’.

What does this actually mean? The end of a game.

In business contexts, it is often used to mean the end of the day, or sometimes the end of the project, or the end of a sign-off period within a larger project.

The problem is, in that context, it doesn’t actually mean anything at all. Whereas the word ‘engine’ promotes communication, phrases like ‘close of play’ only make communication more opaque to out-groups.

Terms like this act as badges of membership to in-groups and make it easier to spot and exclude outsiders.

There are many more specific jargon terms unique to particular industries and even within small teams within an organisation.

A funny story

Once, a friend of mine became so disillusioned with their company’s constant use of jargon, they tried an experiment.

They started dropping the nonsense term ‘lamposting’ into as many discussions as possible.

Within a week, in a meeting with senior leadership, one of the company directors said something like, ‘You seem to be lamposting here. I think we can get better results by…’

Stranger still, when that friend told people what they had done, the term ‘lamposting’ had become so commonplace nobody would accept that it was invented. They even made up stories to rationalise their continued use of it.

In the design-team study, group-specific semantics affected disparate departments’ ability to communicate effectively. For the most part, this is unavoidable when you have various departments with different specialisations.

However, behind that necessary jargon, we create unnecessary jargon to become card-carrying members of whatever group we feel pressured to identify with.

Creating a separate, group-specific language reduces our ability to communicate across diverse groups and filters out potential new entrants to the group.

This groupthink language inhibits the ability of our groups to attain accurate representations of the general population.

This inability to attain accurately representative staffing destroys our ability to create effective, representative work that adequately serves consumers.


  1. Yeng, X., 2009. Using latent semantic analysis (LSA) to study expert design teams’ verbal communication. Masters thesis. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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Groupthink: Understanding the Need for a Diverse Workplace

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