Group-Think: Bad Decision-Making in Teams

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Group-Think: Bad Decision-Making in Teams

Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something. (Anton Chekhov, Notebooks, 1892)

A majority never has right on its side. (Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People, 1900)

It takes an out-group to make an in-group. (E.G. Boring, A History of Psychology in Autobiography, 1952)

When groups develop a very cohesive, internally consistent set of roles and norms, they sometimes become concerned about not disrupting the group’s decisions. Group morale, happiness and contentment are more important than the task (good decision-making) the group has been forced to undertake. Group-think is the term given to the pressure that highly cohesive groups exert on their members for uniform and acceptable decisions that actually reduces their capacity to make effective decisions.

The concept of group-think was proposed as an attempt to explain the ineffective decisions made by US government officials, which led to such fiascos as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War. Analyses of these cases have revealed that, every time, the President’s advisers actually discouraged the making of more effective decisions.

Members of very cohesive groups may have more faith in their group’s decisions than any different idea they may have personally. As a result, they may suspend their own critical thinking in favour of conforming to the group. When group members become tremendously loyal to each other, they may ignore information from other sources if it challenges the group’s decisions. The result of this process is that the group’s decisions may be completely uninformed, irrational or even immoral.

THE WARNING SIGNS OF GROUP-THINK

Symptom

Description

Illusion of invulnerability

Ignoring obvious danger signals, being overly optimistic and taking extreme risks.

Collective rationalization

Discrediting or ignoring warning signals that run contrary to group-thinking.

Unquestioned morality

Believing that the group’s position is ethical and moral and that all others are inherently evil.

Excessive negative stereotyping

Viewing the opposing side as being too negative to warrant serious consideration.

Strong conformity pressure

Discouraging the expression of dissenting opinions under the threat of expulsion for disloyalty.

Self—censorship of dissenting ideas

Withholding dissenting ideas and counter—arguments, keeping them to oneself.

Illusion of unanimity

Sharing the false belief that everyone in the group agrees with its judgements.

Self—appointed mind guards

Protecting the group from negative, threatening information.

Some of the potential consequences of group-think include:

• Fewer alternatives are considered when solving problems; preferred accepted solutions are quickly implemented.

• Outside experts are seldom used, outsiders are distrusted even if they are extremely wise.

• Re-examination of rejected alternatives are unlikely as it makes the group unhappy.

• Facts that do not support the group are ignored, or their accuracy challenged. Group morale is more important.

• Risks are ignored or glossed over and seldom assessed.

However, you can take steps to reduce the likelihood of group-think. Reducing group-think, however, is much more difficult than preventing it in the first place, because groups engaging in group-think seldom realize that they are doing so. To prevent or reduce the effects of group-think, leaders can:

• Encourage each member of the group to evaluate their own and others’ ideas openly and critically.

• Ask influential members to adopt an initial external (even critical) stance on solutions (even leave the group for set periods).

• Discuss plans with disinterested outsiders to obtain reactions.

• Use expert advisers to redesign the decision-making process.

• Assign a devil’s advocate role to one or more group members to challenge ideas.

• Explore alternative scenarios for possible external reactions.

• Use subgroups (select committees) to develop alternative solutions.

• Meet to reconsider decisions prior to implementation.

Given that group-think is potentially dangerous, organizations often choose to implement decisions that avoid it by the following means:

Promote open inquiry. Group leaders should encourage group members to be sceptical of all solutions and to avoid reaching premature agreements. It helps to play the role of the ’devil’s advocate’ — to find fault intentionally with a proposed solution — so that all its shortcomings are considered.

Use subgroups. Split the group, because the decisions made by one group may be the result of group-think, so basing decisions on the recommendations of two or more groups trying to solve the same problem is a useful check. If the groups disagree, a spirited discussion of their differences is likely to raise important issues.

Admit shortcomings. Asking others to point out their misgivings and hesitations about a group’s decision may avoid the illusion of perfection that contributes to group-think. Groups must be encouraged to believe that doubt, not certainty, is always acceptable.

Hold ’second-chance’ meetings. Before implementing any decision it may be a good idea to hold a second-chance meeting in which group members are asked to express any doubts and to propose any new ideas they may have. A second-chance meeting can be useful to see if the solution still seems as good after ’sleeping on it’.

Not all groups are susceptible to group-think. But to promote successful group decision-making, it is advisable to:

• State the problem clearly, indicating its significance and what is expected of the group when faced with solving it.

• Break a complex problem into separate parts, and make decisions affecting each part.

• Focus discussion on the key issues and, when all avenues are explored, put a stop to analysis, and call for a vote, if necessary, when the time is right.

• Assist members to cope with other people’s ideas, and then ask them to substantiate the correctness of their own ideas.

• Before making a final decision, encourage members to consider any adverse repercussions likely to flow from a given solution.

• Be suspicious of unanimous decisions, particularly those arrived at quickly, and avoid them.

• Make sure that those who are charged with the implementation of a group’s decision understand exactly what they are expected to do.

• Avoid wide differences in status among members, or alternatively help members recognize these differences and explore ways of reducing their inhibitions with respect to ’status’ in the group.

• Prepare procedures in advance to deal with urgent or crisis decisions.

• Protect the group from damaging effects of external criticism, but at the same time let the group benefit from critical ideas or observations of a constructive nature that are likely to improve the quality of its deliberations.

• Encourage members to evaluate the skills residing in the group and find ways of improving them.

Clearly, by the number of warnings provided by different writers and consultants, it seems that the dangers of group-think on boards, committees and in task groups is well recognized.

REFERENCES

Greenberg, J., & Baron, R. (2003). Behaviour in Organizations. New York: Prentice Hall.

Janis, I. (1972). Victims of group-think. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin.

Stoner, J. (1961). A comparison of individual and group decisions involving risk. MSc thesis, Sloan School of Industrial Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.