People working in groups often meet to make decisions and/or solve their problems. However, they sometimes become reluctant to share their opinions because of the fear they may appear unsupportive. This usually happens because group members wish to keep up their group cohesiveness, which eventually deteriorates their judgments leading to poor decisions. This phenomenon is referred to as groupthink (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001).
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Irving Janis, a renowned social psychologist, is among the first individuals to publish literature addressing groupthink. In 1972, he published the work in which he stated that a group suffered from groupthink when its members ignored possible alternatives and decided to settle for less important alternatives.
Furthermore, he argues that groupthink was responsible for hasty formulation of American foreign policy decisions in 1972. He claims that group unanimity pressures and the need to maintain cohesiveness led the US government to make some unwise foreign policy decisions (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Groupthink happens when group members have similar origins, isolate themselves from external opinions, or lack proper guidance for making decisions. Social psychologists have identified symptoms that can help groups to identify groupthink and take possible measures to prevent it (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Symptoms of Groupthink
Illusion of Invulnerability
Excessive optimism encourages group members to take extreme risks. This allows them to make decisions in haste, assuming that they are not vulnerable to risks (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Group members convince themselves that their decisions are the best despite the existence of possible risks. They consider an opinion that goes against their own as the wrong one and shallowly researched. In other words, members despise other people’s evidence that contradicts their alternatives.
Illusion of Unanimity
Group members are afraid of making comments during the decision-making process. Therefore, since no one speaks out, they feel that their decisions are unanimous (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001).
Members avoid giving opinions that contradict those that everyone in the group acknowledges. They refrain from expressing their doubts or opinions that oppose those perceived in a group.
Members protect their opinions from outside opinions that may interfere with their decisions. This helps them to avoid controversy (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Group members begin to view outsiders as inferiors who have different morals. This happens as the group members’ views become more unified. The members feel superior over the outsiders.
Moral High Ground
Each group member considers himself/herself as moral. Therefore, all members believe that their decisions are right. This often makes them to ignore the moral consequences of their decisions.
When a member gives an opinion that differs from the rest of the group members, he/she gets pressured by other members to comply with the majority.
The group becomes convinced that all decisions made are right after a few successes. This makes them to abandon critical thinking while making decisions which results into unwise judgments (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001).
The existence of the above symptoms shows that groups are vulnerable to groupthink. Group cohesiveness, strong influential group leaders, and a pressure to make quality decisions predispose a group to the phenomenon of groupthink. Pressure due to unanimity makes members to abandon appraisal of the available options. As a result, they resort to options that promote unanimity at the expense of available and effective alternative options. Therefore, the resulting decisions bring very little success (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
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How to avoid groupthink
Groupthink can have disastrous effects for a group. Thus, it needs to be avoided. Team leaders find it challenging to create an environment that discourages groupthink. However, it can be avoided in several ways. For instance, a group needs a well formulated process to check for risks involved in making certain decisions.
During the decision-making process the group should explore all possible objectives and alternatives, test assumptions, collect relevant information from outside groups, check the risk associated with the choice of a specific decision, and encourage challenge of ideas without punishment. In addition, the group must have at least one contingency plan to pursue if all other options fail (Ahlfinger & Esser, 2001).
There are several tools that groups can use to avoid groupthink. These tools are divided into two major categories which include group techniques and decision support tools. Group techniques include brainstorming which helps group ideas to flow smoothly without criticism.
They also include nominal group techniques which give each member a chance to comment while making decisions. These alleviate the possibility of influential members to overrule the decision-making process. Other techniques include six thinking hats and the Delphi technique. Decision support group tools include risk analysis that enables members to explore and manage group risks and impact analysis (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Groupthink can happen in any group and adversely undermine the group’s value. It can cost people’s lives especially when it leads to wrong decisions. Moreover, it can easily stifle teamwork or make group members lose their enthusiasm. Furthermore, it affects the group’s ability to make better decisions. Therefore, it is important for groups to be aware of groupthink and avoid it during decision-making processes (Galanes & Katherine, 2003).
Ahlfinger, N. R. & Esser, J. K. (2001). Testing the Groupthink Model: Effects of
Promotional Leadership and Conformity Predisposition. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 29(1), 31-42.
Galanes, G., & Katherine, A. (2003). Effective Group Discussion: Theory and Practice. New York: McGraw Hill Education.