The term "groupthink" was coined by psychologist Irving Janis to explain some alarmingly bad decisions (and bad outcomes) made by governments and businesses, which he called "fiascoes." He was particularly drawn to situations where group pressure seemed to result in a fundamental failure to think.

In Groupthink, Janis defined groupthink as: "a quick and easy way to refer to a mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action. Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures." These groups are "overcohesive." Because of a need to belong to the group, no one wants to "break the peace" and express a contrary view. The concept, however, can also refer to the tendency of groups to agree with powerful, intimidating bosses. As Janis said, "Sometimes the main trouble is that the chief executive manipulates his advisors to rubber-stamp his own ill-conceived proposals." Group capitulation to a powerful presence is also an important groupthink element.

Social science has a long history of interest in group pressure on individual rational processes. One example is the early work of G. Le Bon on crowd behavior. He addressed the suspension of individual judgment when people are caught up in group excitement. Another example comes from Emile Durkheim's work on altruistic suicide, first published in 1898. Individual judgment "caves in" under group pressure, and, as Durkheim said," The weight of society is thus brought to bear on him to lead him to destroy himself."

Although not focusing on groups as such in particular, Stanley Milgram, in his book Obedience to Authority, was interested in the concept of submission to authority, a phenomenon similar to that which occurs when groups agree not to create disharmony in the face of powerful bosses. Jerry B. Harvey, in an article in Organizational Dynamics, noted similar results—groups doing things of poor quality that no one really wanted to do—and called it the Abilene Paradox. Barbara Tuchman called poor decisions "folly" in her 1984 book, The March of Folly. She was more interested in decision results than in the group process that drove them, but she falls within the group of thinkers exploring poor quality decisions.

The concept of groupthink provides a summary explanation of reasons groups sometimes make poor decisions. Indeed, groups are supposed to be better than individuals at making complex decisions, because, through the membership, a variety of differing perspectives are brought to bear. They not only serve to bring new ideas into the discussion but also act as error-correcting mechanisms. Groups also provide social support, which is especially critical for new ideas.

But when new perspectives are rejected (as in the "not invented here" syndrome), it is hard to correct errors. And if the social support was geared toward supporting the group's "accepted wisdom," the elements that can make groups better decision makers than individuals become inverted, and make them worse. Just as groups can work to promote effective decision thinking/making, the same processes that enhance the group's operation can backfire and lead to disastrous results.

In Groupthink, Janis identified seven points on how groupthink works.

  1. The group's discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two), without a survey of the full range of alternatives.
  2. The group does not survey the objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice. Review is cursory.
  3. The group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of members from the standpoint of the nonobvious risks and drawbacks that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated.
  4. The members neglect courses of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory—they spend little or no time discussing whether they have overlooked nonobvious gain.
  5. The members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts who can supply sound estimates of gains and losses to be expected from alternative courses of action.
  6. Selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts.
  7. The members spend little time deliberating about how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia or sabotaged by political opponents; consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans.

While these kinds of problems can stem from many sources, they are common to groupthink situations. Tuchman surveyed history from the incident of the Trojan Horse to Vietnam, while Janis looked at situations such as Watergate, the Iranian rescue mission, and the Challenger disaster. Numerous examples from business will immediately come to the reader's mind.

What causes groupthink? There are precipitating and predisposing conditions at work. Four general precipitating problems are:

Groupthink occurs when a group feels too good about itself. The group feels both invulnerable and optimistic. The group feels morally right. As one business leader has said, "We thought we were golden."

Linked to this attitude of perfection is a correlative closed-mindedness. Warnings are ignored. Messengers of difference are dismissed. Negative, stereo-typic views of opponents are created and used.

There is pressure for uniformity. A certain amount of self-censorship occurs. If individuals have questions, they keep them to themselves. This lack of dissent results in what Janis called an "illusion of unanimity." If any difference does occur, group pressure is applied to bring the dissident into line.

Janis also mentioned "the emergence of self appointed mindguards—members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency."

If these precipitating problems support tendencies to groupthink, there are predisposing conditions as well. Janis suggested four antecedent conditions that create the predisposition to groupthink:

As a group "hangs together" and members grow to like each other, there will be greater pressure not to introduce disturbing information and opinion that might tear at that cohesiveness. Maintaining the good feelings that come from such cohesion becomes part of the group's "hidden agenda."

The insulation of the policy-making group is another factor. Frequently groupthinking groups are removed from interaction with others, perhaps because of their position at the top of the organization.

Lack of impartial leadership is a third contributing cause. When powerful leaders want to "get their way," they can overtly and covertly pressure the group into agreement. Indeed, such pressure has become in many quarters a shorthand definition of groupthink itself—capitulation to power. Speaking the truth to "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap may have tough consequences. Agreement may seem easier. When your boss screams at you for several minutes, as Steve Jobs (of Apple) was reported to have done to a hapless subordinate, groupthink is virtually inevitable.

Finally, the group did not have a template or protocol for decision making, and norms for such a procedure were also missing, what Janis called "The lack of norms requiring methodological procedures for dealing with decision making tasks."

There are several things businesspersons can do to avoid groupthink: follow good meeting procedures, including the development of agenda; aim for proper and balanced staff work; and present competing views and attend to correlative meeting problems such as exhaustion. A template for discussion might also be useful. One suggestion is to use (1) an "options memo technique" in which information is presented as a problem statement; (2) a list of options; and (3) a preliminary recommendation. The group then looks at the preliminary recommendation with at least four questions in mind: (1) is the logic correct? (in selecting the preliminary recommendation from among the options); (2) is the judgment correct? (the logic may be fine, but the judgment may be poor); (3) are there any problems or errors remaining in the preliminary recommendation?; and (4) can the preliminary recommendation be improved? Janis and L. Mann provided a template that proceeds with the following six questions: (1) need; (2) alternatives; (3) gains and losses to self and others; (4) overall pros and cons; (5) commitment to action (decision); and (6) implementation.

Resolving the template issue is one thing. Securing norms that support its use is another. Both are needed. In addition, work is needed to prevent group isolation. This can be achieved through bringing in new participants on a regular basis, using outside experts (both specific experts and experts on the meeting/decision process), and inviting the group to meet off-site so that changes in settings and surroundings are a stimulant.

It is vital for the chairperson, or leader, to become a statesperson, an orchestra conductor, instead of a partisan virtuoso. Leadership almost always involves getting work done through others. High-quality decisions are not made through intimidation, intentional or unintentional. Many bosses lack a sufficiently developed "observing ego" to see how much they intimidate others. Some bosses have no idea why people do not speak up, while the reason they do not is because they are likely to be attacked. Bosses are best if they can alert their groups to the kind of review they want. A boss can say "I have made this decision. If anyone wants to comment, that's fine, but it is a done deal," or "I am going to make this decision. I would like your input, but I am not promising I will follow the alternatives you develop here." Or a boss can say, "I am going to make this decision and want your input. I will be shaped by it, and you will see that in the result"; or "I would like you to make this decision, but here are my parameters in terms of time, cost, etc." If the leader can be clear, and temperate, there is a great likelihood that norms of disagreement will develop.

Finally, there is the cohesion process itself. Decision making tears at the fabric of group cohesion, and it is the desire to preserve cohesion that is an underlying dynamic of groupthink. Decision fiascoes are nondecisions, or a decision masked by fake agreement. It is clear that decision making will rupture cohesion. But if decisions lower group cohesion it is not necessary to avoid decisions; an alternative is to rebuild it each time. One way to accomplish this rebuilding is to complete decision making by about 65 percent of the way through the meeting, then move on to brainstorming, "blue-sky" (future-oriented) items for the last 20 to 30 percent of the meeting. People who have differed before have a chance to continue to interact, now around less-threatening, future-oriented items. It allows for decompression, and for rebonding the group.

Because of the flaws of individual decision making—selective perception, excessive self-interest, limited knowledge, limited time—most important decisions today are made in groups. And groups can do a spectacular job; but they often do not. Meetings, the place where groups do their decision-making work have a "bad press," largely because of processes such as groupthink. Groupthink is the result of flawed procedures, poor leadership, insulation, and an unmanaged desire for the maintenance of group cohesion and its good feelings. These can be addressed positively, and group decision making improved, while groupthink is kept to a minimum.

SEE ALSO : Policies and Policy Making

[ John E. Tropman ]


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