Groupthink, as the term suggests, is a phenomenon where members in a group prioritize the desire to achieve harmony and concordance within the group at the expense of the appraisal of the other alternatives they may have.
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Irvin Janis, a psychologist, came up with the term to help us understand the unbelievingly bad decisions that leaders and business people make which come from the influence of group mentality. Groupthink is “the process by which members of a cohesive group arrives at a decision that many individual members privately believe is unwise” (Kendall, p.150).
This means that there are no other alternative decisions that the group may reach. In fact, the hidden views might have the potential to produce better results, but for fear of brewing arguments within the group, the members hold back and go with the seemingly popular decision.
Members of the group often want to remain as a unit. Therefore, they glorify unity to the sense that they would not want to jeopardize the unity by bringing up contradicting ideas and opinions. Consequently, it results in everyone agreeing to the decisions and holding back what they privately think is more practical and workable. Forsyth says that, in a cohesive group, members refrain from speaking out against decisions, avoid arguing with others, and strife to maintain friendly, cordial relations at all costs (p.341).
The members of the group get out of touch with reality and give precedence and priority to issues that do not matter. Groupthink denies one the desire to be creative and innovative amongst a group of individuals in an organization.
Why would anyone bother to come up with an idea if they cannot voice it in the fear of creating discordance in the group? It suffocates the life out of an organization and brings about stagnation. Individuals view change as an enemy and do anything within their power to resist it.
Groupthink is known to thrive in the presence of mind guards. Mind guards are individuals within a group who are usually self-appointed. They make sure that no member of the group stands up to raise a different opinion. Usually, they are the most talkative members and who seem to have more charisma.
Groupthink is known to have very adverse effects on decision making. Groupthink can be referred to as “the deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures” (Weick and Roberts, p. 357). Any leader, chairman, or director of a group in an organization should be very keen to tosspot the symptoms of groupthink and nip it in the bud before it crashes the whole organization.
Symptoms of groupthink
Groupthink is characterized by certain characteristics. Some of these traits include the following:
In as much as close-mindedness of individuals can be a cause or breeding ground for groupthink to thrive, it is also a trait that a group leader should be on the look out for.
Close-minded individuals are resistant to change, and they tend to be rigid and allergic to the activities that are likely to destabilize the status quo. The most dangerous member of a group is the close-minded one who happens to have some influence in the group. Such are the ones who end up being mind guards, so that they can trigger groupthink and sustain it among the group.
Any organization needs the cooperation of various departments within it to grow and develop. Isolation of groups within it is a sure cause for alarm. Individuals need to work as a team, have the same goals and targets. That is why mottos and mission statements exist in organizations.
However, this should not be translated to suggest that should think and act alike. In as much as unity in the organization is strength, variety and diversity of ideas lead to creativity and innovation, which then results in better results and continuous growth of the organization. Most of the time, when a group isolates itself and starts thinking and acting as a unit, it creates insulation around it such that it does not allow any influence from outside. Any leader who notices such behavior should be very afraid.
When members in the group begin to intimidate their leader publically, something is very wrong. Wick, Karl, and Roberts state that maintaining good feelings become part of the groups “hidden agenda” (p. 367). This means that if the group believes that a leader is out to make their lives miserable, the members might fight back often in the leadership of the mind guards who have the most influence in the group. They may do this by changing directives by the leader and sometimes even boycotting duties.
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Team work is very critical for the success of any organization. However, too much cohesion is unhealthy. When members of a group begin minding too much about their interrelations in the office than the performance, the leader has a storm brewing in his teacup. With time, the groups will get their own internal leaders and mind guards and groupthink will blossom rampantly.
Within the group, there is a presumption of unanimous agreement in every issue that is raised. When there is the illusion that everyone is in agreement, this may result in everybody agreeing to the issue at hand without question. This is irrespective of whether they genuinely agree or not. Therefore, this restricts the voicing of opinions and ideas amongst the group members.
Members under the groupthink influence tend to have some illusion that they are vulnerable to nothing. The good feeling they get from the sense of assumed togetherness makes them feel that nothing can possibly go wrong. They have already insulated themselves from the harsh realities of life and thus exist in some utopia they have created.
Man is to error. Individuals under the spell of groupthink do not see anything wrong with the decisions they make. They are so wrapped in their aim of self preservation. In this case, they do not even realize that the decisions they make might have negative moral or ethical impact.
They strongly believe in the correctness of their decisions. If the above symptoms go unattended and stopped, groupthink blossoms and it can have very diverse and far-reaching effects, especially when the situation happens in mass leadership fronts. Below are some of those consequences.
Consequences of groupthink
Once individualism is suppressed, and the right to personal decision is interfered with; the results can be quite devastating. This is both for the individual and organization in question.
Partial examination of the available alternatives
Where groupthink rules, the decision is made even before it is deliberated upon. All other alternatives are brushed aside, and anyone who had a different opinion keeps it to themselves. Where the leader of the group is also part of the groupthink, his advisers exist merely to rubberstamp his already made decisions. No one is allowed to critic the unanimously agreed upon decision.
When a problem arises that requires brainstorming, there is a lax in doing so. This is because all individuals are aware that they are not supposed to think outside the groupthink box. The decision will be reached very fast and with very little search for the required information. In this case, the problem will not be solved in a comprehensive manner. There are chances that the problem will recur, or worse still; the problem may create a chain of other problems.
Insufficient examination of risks
Members of the group do not perceive the risks they undertake in decision making as they are. This is due to the illusions that surround groupthink like invulnerability, righteousness and insulation. The worst mistake any organization can make is the underestimation of very potentially destructive risks. When the risks turn to liabilities, the organization suffers the loss all because a certain group thought they were impermeable to a certain risk.
Biased selection and processing of information
Groupthink members like to live in their utopia of no worries. Therefore, they have some insulation against the harsh realities of life. This is translated even in the information they chose to work on and that which they ignore. This clearly shows that very critical information might be left out during a decision-making session, all because it was unpalatable to the members. The decision made will reflect on the organization’s dealings and conduct of its duties and businesses.
Miscommunication of information
It has been quoted that: “Knowledge is power and we as citizens and a nation are becoming less powerful” (Argos Press, para. 6). This brings to light the effect of groupthink on media services. Every nation relies on the media for information. If media groups are led by individuals under the influence of groupthink, the whole nation is left groping in the dark. When the media collaborates with the government in secrecy of their activities, all that is brought to the public is sifted and biased information with very little truth.
Why does groupthink still exist?
Having known the impacts of groupthink, both on an individual and to an organization; one might be persuaded to vote this silent vice out. Surprisingly, groupthink is very active even today both in organizations and even in places of mass leadership. The reasons for this have been discussed below.
Individuals like the idea of being able to bend the wills of others to do their bidding. Groupthink takes control of the will of a person and denies him or her ability to voice what one may be thinking. If one has influence in a certain group saturated with groupthink, he is likely to be in charge and others will always be concurring with his ideas. Such a person is most likely to be a mind guard for the group so that they ensure there is no influence from outside the group.
Groupthink suppresses the problem-solving capacity of the mind of individuals. In this case, group members always look up to its leader for solutions even though they are very much able to think of better solutions on their own. Groupthink mentality gives the mind guards the ability to make decisions for the group then suppress the attempt by others top counter thee decisions.
Groupthink offers cover for people with ulterior motives. For instance if an individual in the group wants to overthrow leadership in an organization, he will use groupthink as his front and downsize the leadership from there. The members will not have an idea that they are just part of the big plan until it is too late. Individuals with influence in the group are usually the ones who benefit from the whole groupthink effect.
Poor leadership skills
Most people in leadership positions are not well prepared to tackle the responsibilities placed on their shoulders. They do not know how to treat the people under them with respect and dignity, and this leads to the members fighting against the leadership in the best way they know how, creating a protective wall around them which results in the ultimate development of groupthink.
Aristotle is said to have noted that “evil draws men together”. This is the case with groupthink. The problem with being a part of a group is that the group gives an individual some form of anonymity. The aspects of groups do not only encourage risky behaviors.
This is because they create problems of accountability that undermine democratic procedures (Kowert, p. 2). This ensures that upon making a bad decision that leads to negative results, there will be no designated person to blame. In this case, the blame can always fall on someone else.
This lack of responsibility and accountability is what makes groupthink thrive among leadership positions. As indicated above, groupthink is not going anywhere anytime soon. It had been in existence even before it was discovered by the psychologist Janis and is still very much in play. This can be proven by the decisions made by our leaders in the recent past that have had far-reaching impacts on thousands of people (Kowert, p. 5).
Example of the impact of groupthink
A good example of a groupthink scenario that has had a great impact in the history of our country is the invasion in Iraq in 2003. Majority of the American citizens thought there were better ways of solving the issues the nation had with Iraq. Most of them voted for diplomacy and negotiations. The rest of the world thought the same too. Nonetheless, President Bush and his administration thought differently, and they still went ahead and attacked. Well, they won the battle but not the war. That did not diminish terrorism in the way they expected.
To make matters worse, America lost countless military soldiers and had thousands of casualties. There was also the emergence of economic issues that made life very difficult. The diplomacy status of America and the rest of the world took a nosedive due to the aftermath of the war and the whole idea being a wrong one.
Though little attention is given to the damage they caused on the other side, there sure was. Many lives were also lost on the Iraqi soil, and there were casualties too. This could not have been the case if a member from the inner circle, who thought he had a brilliant idea on how to handle the matter, had spoken out instead of being held back in the groupthink mentality.
There is no doubt that the issue of groupthink can be solved in any organization. There are various ways of countering this destructive enemy. The leader in any group should encourage each member of the group to participate and be part of critical evaluation of every idea presented to the group.
Participation helps tap the group’s potential to the maximum because every member of the group has something unique to offer. Thy all just need a little encouragement most of the time. This will also encourage members to voice their opinions without fear or favor and boost their confidence.
Every group should have this member who will always tear apart an idea, and criticize it totally to examine it for weaknesses and faults. This will ensure that every decision made in the group is unbiased and is all-rounded. It also encourages members to do their own background research on ideas they are about to present prior to the meeting. This will ensure that even when criticized, these ideas will still hold water.
The leader should be very careful not to impose his will on the members by hinting his personal feelings about a certain idea during the decision making process. When a leader encourages a group to brainstorm ideas then goes ahead and begins hinting on which he favors, there will be very little actual brainstorming.
Most leader posses power and influence in a group and this will make some members want to side with him just to be on his good side. In meetings were decisions are made, an external expert should be in attendance. The external expert not only brings fresh ideas to the group, he also helps the group look at the existing ideas in a whole new dimension. His unbiased expert opinion is very critical since he obviously has no ulterior motives concerning the organization.
The external expert also offers criticism to the ideas in the group and assists the group acquire a more open-minded outlook towards the issues at hand. This takes care of groupthink tendencies that may come up when the group brainstorms ideas on its own. Also, it helps the organization remain competitive in the field due to the fresh ideas brought along by the external expert.
The leader should always be on the lookout for tale-tell signs of groupthink mentality encroaching into his group. He should create time to discuss this warning with the group among other issues like the current status of their rivals. This ensures that the group is safe from groupthink.
At the same time, it promotes the relations between the members, such that there is harmony and members do not lose focus on the major issues. It is appropriate for leaders to concern themselves with the organization of their staff. As long as the methods used to gather this information are within the confines of both moral and ethical means; by all means, a leader should keep his eyes peeled, and ears cocked.
The leader should be able to notice the tiny warning signs and deal with them lest he will have a mountain of problems at his doorstep. Having knowledge on the aspect of groupthink, its symptoms, consequences, and remedies; a leader should be able to protect his team from falling into the clutches of this menace.
Argos press. Groupthink. n.d. Web. Feb. 22nd, 2012.
Forsyth, Donelson R. Group Dynamics. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.
Kendall, Diana E. Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2012. Print.
Kowert, Paul A. Groupthink or Deadlook: When Do Leaders Learn from Their Advisors? Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 2002. Print.
Weick, Karl, and Karlene Roberts. “Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks.” Administrative Science Quarterly 38 (1993): 357-81. Print.