In attempting to define groupthink as a part of the group decision making process it becomes a quagmire as to how to define this abstract dynamic event. Generally, the definitions discovered tend to imply a negative slant by most authors related to the study of groupthink. The tendency to “feel” that it is negative is not without merit due to the fact that most empirical studies are completed on the failures rather than the successes.
Groupthink can be defined as: The psychological group dynamic in which “the norm for consensus overrides the realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action” that may lead to a poor result or decision. (Robbins & Judge, 2011) During groupthink, as defined, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking.
A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. (McKenna, 2008)
Irving Janis, who is one of the most quoted author on the concepts of groupthink, points out how political leaders have made bad foreign policy decisions, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Recently, others invoked groupthink as an explanation for U.S. debacle of the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, launching the doomed space shuttle Challenger, the Nixon Watergate cover-up, and lack of disaster preparedness despite warnings of impending danger, such as the federal government response before and after Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi and Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, in 2005. (Schafer, 2010)
However, as a positive aspect to groupthink or group decisions making process it should be noted that authors, in hindsight, place great deal emphasis on what has failed rather than what has succeeded. Two successes of groupthink stand out above all others and are the most relevant to all U.S. citizens. The Declarations of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were derived from groupthink. It should be genuinely evident that these two documents, which are the foundation upon the formation of the United States, are extraordinary products of groupthink.
It could be argued that using these two extraordinary events as an example of successful groupthink is not in the context as discussed by Ivan Janis. Specifically, due to the grave consequences of these decisions themselves and that it was “politically” voted upon for approval rather than a decision with lesser consequences made by a group with less motivation. Even so, it is remarkable that these two events are suspiciously absent from the studies completed on groupthink.
The presumption is that these omissions are done with the purpose to separate groupthink from group decision making in the attempt to ensure that “groupthink is considered a flawed process”. (Schafer 2010) However, groupthink and group decision making are interlinked, and groupthink is a by-product of forming a group where group pressures for conformity deter the group from critically apprising unusual or unpopular views. (Robbins & Judge 2011) There are three basic premises of groupthink:
1. “Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.”
2. “The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.” 3. “These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.” (Janis, Irving 1972,1982 ,Web)
These premises of groupthink are somewhat ambiguous; however, they indicate that groupthink is dependent upon people’s interactions and influences with each other. A more concrete view of groupthink is the eight symptoms of groupthink by Ivan Janis. They include: 1. Self-Censorship: Feeling pressure to conform within group; members withhold open criticisms. 2. Illusion of Invulnerability, group Exceptionalism: this attitude as ‘‘everything is going to work out all right because we are a special group.” In reality group is engaged in quasi-religious, detached from reality thinking and ignore (often to its peril) important facts or alternatives.
3. Belief in Inherent Morality of the Group: members automatically assume the rightness of their cause. If some facts counter this perception they are brushed away or written down as accidental “bad apples”. 4. Collective Rationalization: A delusion of behaving and observing rationally while being highly selective in gathering information. 5. Out-group Stereotypes:
Perception of external world as aliens that cannot understand and appreciate the “cause” the cements the group. 6. Illusion of Unanimity: Individual group members look to each other to confirm theories. 7. Direct Pressure on Dissenters: Pressure to protect group from negative views or information. 8. Self-Appointed Mindguards: these ‘‘mindguards” protect a leader from assault by troublesome ideas. (McKenna, 2008)
The eight symptoms are not the only factors which should be considered affecting a group and its decision process. Poor information search is another such factor; when the group fails to pursue information that may be available and necessary for critically evaluating policy options. This can be the result of a variety of problems, including arrogance, ignorance, misguided deference or even a conscious decision to not contact someone who has relevant information which could help the group formulate a high quality outcome.
Group cohesion is a valuable asset; although, when group cohesion is valued above the quality of information processing, dissent is discouraged, suppressed, or eliminated: shortcuts are taken in the process: assumptions by the leader or key advisor go unquestioned; and biases lead to policy. (Schafer, 2010) Members feel closely identified with one another on the basis of a common cause or purpose or racial, ethnic, or national identity. Clear boundaries are drawn between the “We” and all others (“Them”).
Members feel and exert, on one another, a pressure to maintain unity within the group. (Oshry, 2007) This is essentially a natural mechanism (humans are social animals) related to a spontaneous consensus-seeking tendency in groups, attempt to find the balance between interests of the individual and the group. An intersection between interests of the individual and the group can be called the collective self-interest of the group, and it plays the role of the glue that binds members together and strengthens the group. [ (Bezroukov, 2010) ]
We must not forget the basic psychological factor which is a part of the complexities of groupthink such as the individual’s psychological need to belong and the motivation to be viewed as a part of the group. A person with a particular motive will engage in a certain activities if they believe it will bring about a satisfying consequence. (Cartwright & Zander, 1968)
This may lead others with less or low self-esteem to conform rather than risk elimination from the group. Some people may succumb to groupthink as a way to “fit-in” or they could be overwhelmed by a uniquely charismatic leader. Criticisms of groupthink fall into three general categories: the use of case studies for theory development, the dangers of hindsight bias, and the validity of the conditions necessary for groupthink. Experimental tests have produced mixed support, yet the idea of groupthink is so well known that some researchers, ironically, suggest that many people believe in the idea far more enthusiastically than empirical tests of the evidence warrant.
The criticisms produced refinements of Janis’s original idea, particularly in an effort to clarify the conditions associated with the development of groupthink. They include the need for a strong social identity, cognitive dissonance, an abusive organizational structure, and personality characteristics and a high level of confidence in the group’s ability to make proper decisions.
Despite the criticisms, use of the concept of groupthink continues as an explanation for defective group decision making that produces disastrous results. (Bezroukov, 2010) One of the main issues with groupthink is a lack of accountability. Not necessarily the accountable for the end result, which is important, but the formation of the group and the roles given to those individuals on the group.
Too many like minds will provide you with less than an optimal outcome. Diversity, across as many areas of expertise as possible, and diverse as well as divergent personalities will generally reduce the negative trappings of groupthink. (Buck, 2012) Individuals adopt particular groupthink roles within the group, most notably a “mind guard,” a person who detects and punishes others who threaten the group’s cohesiveness.
Proposed countermeasures to help groups resist succumbing to groupthink are appointing someone to play the role of devil’s advocate, staying open to criticism, maintaining an open leadership style, valuing ideological diversity, and actively seeking opinions from sources outside the group. (Borchers, 1999) Creating an effective group is extremely critical in helping to prevent the negative results of groupthink.
Group development and effectiveness is paramount to this endeavor and using the Team Effectiveness Model in developing a group will assist in forming a group that will likely succeed. The model is broken down into three main components; Context, Composition and Process. Contextual factors: adequate resources, effective leadership, a climate of trust and a performance evaluation and reward system.
Composition factors: abilities of members, personality, assigning roles, diversity, size of teams, member flexibility and member preferences. Process factors: common purpose, specific goals, team efficacy, conflict levels and social loafing. (Robbins & Judge, 2011) All the factors should be recognized for their value; however, some specific factors do stand out. Adequate resources from the organization will give the group the physical and psychological support they will need.
Trust, both among the group members and between the group and organization, is vital to a group’s ability to feel secure to risk being vulnerable. Role assignment is critical and fitting people to the right roles to ensure all ideas are properly challenged will help limit the negativity of groupthink. The abilities of the members and their personalities are critical as well. If there are not enough technical skill, knowledge and problem solving ability or there are unstable personalities in the group, this will cause disruption, suppression of ideas and possible failure of the group.
And let us not fore-go goal setting and purpose, for not having a “Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic Time bound” goal will cause the process to be aimless and ineffective. (Davis J.D., 2012) Group size is another consideration in the equation of group decision making / groupthink. Obviously, and individual has no issues with groupthink, unless they are psychologically unstable with a multiple personality disorder. Depending upon the task or problem to be solved an individual will accomplish the task more efficiently; however, it will lack creativity, quality and will most likely viewed less favorably by the organization. Smaller groups are generally more efficient and tend to be less effected by the trappings of groupthink.
Larger groups will provide a higher quality outcome, but are less efficient and are more inclined to let groupthink be out of control. People grow more intimidated and hesitant as group size increases although there is no magic number that will eliminate groupthink, individuals are likely to feel less personal responsibility when groups get larger than about 10 members. (Robbins & Judge, 2011) Groups which have more than 10 members should be divided into subgroups to work on different aspects of the issue as well as some of the same aspects.
This will allow for a compare and contrast of the solutions by the each group. In essence, each group will be the others “devil’s advocate”. It is difficult to manage a group because of varied nature, personality traits attitudes of individuals and personal interest in the group. (Kondalkar, 2007) So keeping the group size in the optimal ranger of 6-10 would seem logical for both the ability to manage as well as to reduce the possibility of groupthink. In summary, groupthink is neither a positive nor a negative. It is a by-product of the formation of the group itself. As a part of groups and group dynamics, groupthink must be recognized and controlled to help ensure the mot productive groups.
The symptoms of groupthink should not be viewed as bad traits, but should be considered as potential warning signs. Some of those traits identified as symptoms of groupthink are valued traits, such as cohesiveness, exceptionalism and morality. We must be careful not to over think or overprotect from groupthink, or there could be little accomplished as groupthink cannot be eliminated. Rather, we must recognize and acknowledged that we are human beings and are social animals. We all belong to groups; some groups by choice others not by choice.
It is the interaction of people within the group where good traits become too important and override rational and impartial thinking of the individual. Ensuring the right person is placed into the right role when developing the group is crucial to keep the negativity of groupthink limited. Leaders should be very cautious about a decision when everyone agrees and there are no dissenters. This should invoke the leader to challenge the group as to why there is unanimity.
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McKenna, J. (2008). . Retrieved from Reference.com: www.reference.com/browse/groupthink Oshry, B. (2007). Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life. Willistion, VT: Berrett-Koehler. Robbins, S. P., & Judge, T. A. (2011). Organizational Behavior, Fourteenth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Schafer, M. (2010). Groupthin Versus High-Qualith Decison Marking in Internationl Relations. New York, NY: Columbia Univeristy Press.