Us vs. Them: The Ugly Side of Groupthink

Gurleen Baruah

September 8, 2020

Sometimes, the desire to maintain group harmony overrides the importance of making sound decisions. And those who dare to speak up are often at the receiving end. When that occurs, team members are said to be the victim of group think.

Let’s first look at a real life example that depicts this phenomenon:

In the early 1990s, a high flying CIA analyst Carmen Medina began attending working groups about the future of intelligence. During the course of her career at CIA, Medina recognized a fundamental problem with communication in the intelligence community. The default system for sharing information was through “finished intelligence reports”, which were released once a day and difficult to coordinate across agencies. Analysts had no way of sharing insights as they emerged. Since knowledge was evolving constantly, it took too long for critical information to land in the right hands. With lives at stake and national security on the line, every second mattered. Each agency was effectively producing its own daily newspaper, and Medina saw a need for a dramatically different system that would allow for real-time updates to be shared between agencies. To break down the silos and speed up communication, she proposed something widely countercultural: instead of printing reports on sheets of paper, intelligence agencies ought to begin publishing their findings instantaneously and transmitting them over Intelink, the intelligence community’s classified internet.

Her colleagues quickly shot down her suggestion. Nothing like Medina’s plan had ever been attempted before. The internet, they argued was a threat to national security. Intelligence was a clandestine service for good reason. Under the current system they could ensure that printed documents reached the designated recipient with the need to know: electric communication didn’t seem secure in that way. If knowledge landed in the wrong hands, we would all be in jeopardy.

Medina refused to back down. If the whole point of these groups was to explore the future, and she couldn’t speak truth to power there, where could she? Having witnessed how the fax machine enabled more efficient information sharing, she was convinced that the digital revolution would ultimately shake up the intelligence world. She continued advocating for an internet platform that would allow the CIA to transmit intelligence back and forth with other agencies like the FBI and NASA.

Medina kept voicing her opinions, but no one listened. Her manager warned her:

“Be careful what you are saying in these groups. If you are too honest, and say what you really think, it will ruin your career”.

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Soon even her good friends started isolating themselves from her. Finally, fed up with the lack of respect she was receiving, Medina blew up and got into a shouting match that forced her to take three sick days and then start hunting for a new job.

This scenario is not an exception and I am sure many of us in our lives have been through such situations. The degree may of course vary and our reactions may or may not be like Medina’s. While some people, like her, dare to speak and remain true to their ideals, and others, fall victim to Groupthink, forcing themselves to conform with the group and maintain the status quo.

This article touches upon the ugly side of Groupthink. But before that, we need to understand what is group and why do people join groups; followed by contrasting strengths and weaknesses of group decision making; understanding the byproduct of group decision making: Groupthink and how managers can minimize it. 

Defining Group and Understanding Why People Join Groups

Group can be defined simply as two or more individuals, interacting and interdependent, to come together to achieve particular objectives.

Why do people join Groups?

Well, there’s no single reason why people join groups. Because most people belong to a number of groups, it’s obvious that different groups provide different benefits to their members. Let’s look at the most popular reasons why people join groups:

1.      Security: By joining a group, individuals can reduce the insecurity of “standing alone”. People feel stronger, have fewer doubts, and are more resistant to threats when they are a part of the group.

2.      Status: Inclusion in a group that is viewed as important by others provides recognition and status for its members.

3.      Self-esteem: Groups can provide people with feelings of self worth. That is, in addition to conveying status to those outside the group, membership can also give increased feelings of worth to the group members themselves.

4.      Affiliation: Groups can fulfill social needs. People enjoy the regular interactions that come with group membership. For many people, these on-the-job interactions are their primary source for fulfilling their needs for affiliation.

5.      Power: What cannot be achieved individually often becomes possible through group action. There is power in numbers.

6.     Goal achievement: There are times when it takes more than one person to accomplish a particular task – there is a need to pool talents, knowledge, or power in order to complete a job. In such instances, management will rely on the use of a formal group. 

Group Decision Making: Strengths and Limitations

The belief that two heads are better that one has long been accepted as a basic component in many organizations. This belief has expanded to the point that, many decisions in organizations are taken by groups, teams, or community. But what is better: Individual decisions or decisions taken by the group? Well, there is no black and white answer to that but we can contrast the strengths and limitations of group decision making.

Coming back to the question posed above, what is more effective: Individual decision making or group decision making? Well, that depends on the criteria you use to define effectiveness.

  • In terms of accuracy, group decisions are generally more accurate than the decisions of the average individual in a group, but they are less accurate than the judgments of the most accurate group member (recall, Medina).
  • If decision effectiveness is defined in terms of speed, individuals are superior.
  • If creativity is the criteria, groups tend to be more effective than individuals.
  • In terms of degree of acceptance the final solution achieves, the nod again goes to the group.

So are two heads better than one?

Well, two heads are not necessarily better than one. In fact the evidence generally confirms that superiority of individuals over groups when brainstorming. The best individual in a group also makes best decisions than groups as a whole, though groups do tend to do better than the average group member. Research also indicates that groups are superior only when they meet certain criteria. These include:

  1. The group must have diversity among members: To get benefits from “two heads”, the heads must differ in relevant skills and abilities.
  2. The group members must be able to communicate their ideas freely and openly: This requires an absence of judgment, hostility and intimidation and have an open mind to diverse point of views.
  3. The task being undertaken must be slightly complex: Relative to individuals, groups do better on complex rather than simple tasks. 

The Evil Byproduct of Group Decision Making: Groupthink

Groupthink, the byproduct of group decision making has received a considerable amount of attention from many researchers, behavior analysts and organizational psychologists.

Groupthink is a phenomenon in which the norm for consensus overrides the realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action. It describes situations in which group pressures for conformity deter the group from critically appraising unusual, minority, or unconventional views. Groupthink is a disease that attacks many groups and can dramatically hinder their performance. Let’s look at some of the symptoms of the groupthink phenomenon:

  1. Group members use defense mechanism such as rationalization to the viewpoints that don’t match their pre conceived assumptions (cognitive dissonance). No matter how strongly the evidence may contradict their basic assumptions, members behave so as to reinforce those assumptions continually.
  2. Members apply direct pressures and show superiority on those who express doubts or criticize any of the group’s shared views. This also happens when there is a senior member who shares the group view and the one with the contrasting view is relatively junior or doesn’t hold the important “status”. Because the senior member or the “boss” shares the view, some people especially in Asian countries do not dare to present their own viewpoint.
  3. Members who have doubts or hold a different perspective seek to avoid deviating from what appears to be group consensus by keeping silent about misgivings and even minimizing to themselves the importance of their doubts.
  4. There appears to be an illusion of unanimity. If someone doesn’t speak, it’s assumed that she is in full accord. In a way, silence is viewed as a “yes” vote.

Strategies to Avoid Groupthink

Can managers do something to minimize groupthink? Well of course. It takes rational and impersonal judgment to avoid groupthink. You can use some of these strategies with your group or team to avoid the perils of groupthink:

  1. Monitor group size: People grow more intimidated and hesitant as group size increases, and although, there is no magic number that will eliminate groupthink, individuals are likely to feel less personal responsibility when groups get larger than about ten. To combat this, the leader can create sub-groups to explore opposing alternatives and then the whole group can come together to debate the options.
  2. Play impartial role: Managers can encourage group leaders to play an impartial role. A leader must take inputs from each individual without taking any sides (even if deep down he prefers a certain point of view).
  3. Appoint a devil’s advocate: Managers can appoint one group member to play the role of devil’s advocate; this person’s role is to challenge the majority position and offer divergent perspectives. One such exercise is to have group members talk about dangers or risks involved in a decision and delaying discussion of any potential gains. Requiring members to first focus on the negatives of a decision alternative makes the group less likely to stifle dissenting views and more likely to gain an objective evaluation.
  4. Look for different personalities: Dr. Belbin contends there needs to be at least eight team members of various personalities, such as the unorthodox, creative problem solver; the person who thrives on pressure; and the colleague who judges options objectively. Look for those who have different styles of thinking and communicating. (Further reading: Belbin’s team roles).
  5. Make Time for Independent Evaluation: Susan Cain has advocated that the modern work environment is better suited for extroverts because brainstorming, sharing and decision making are primarily meeting activities. While introverts may have a particularly rough time, using meetings as a primary form of discussion means that your team cannot independently evaluate an issue. Communicate challenges in advance. Post them on a “Consider This” virtual and/or physical wall or send out in an email. Regardless of what method you use, encourage every person to develop an idea in advance of a meeting. This will both give them time to do so in a thoughtful manner and communicate to your team that you value each of their ideas.
  6. Acknowledge biases in data: Leaders may believe they eliminate groupthink by relying on data. But if “analysts cherry-pick information to suit managers’ expectations, managers will be reassured about their decisions and see no need to improve them. And once misleading insights are data-approved, they are even harder to challenge,” note Emre Soyer and Robin M. Hogarth in Harvard Business Review. Leaders need to make sure they don’t reveal their “hope and dreams” to data scientists who are hired to collect and mine information, they advise.
  7. Reward and celebrate individuality and being different: Encourage ongoing critical assessment of all policies and procedures by each member of your organization, even after a consensus has been reached. Encourage members to never grow complacent with the status quo, and to continually investigate new methods, critique outdated ideas and speak their minds.
  8. Suggest a “Plan B”: Develop a “second solution.” Oftentimes, after the pressure of reaching a decision is released, new innovative ideas emerge, sometimes even better ones. Additionally it is always to the advantage of the team to have something on deck in the event unforeseeable blockades prevent the successful implementation of plan A.

Concluding Thoughts

Groupthink can have enormous effect to some – the pressure towards uniformity and conformity is high. They go along to get along and tend to limit their doubts. Bear in mind that keeping quiet does not mean approval or agreement. Any perspectives that are in opposition to the majority of views should not to be persecuted just to run with the group.

What are your views on Groupthink? What do you think teams can do to prevent groupthink from occurring? How might differences in status among group members contribute to groupthink? For example, how might lower status members react to a group’s decision? Are lower status members more or less likely to be dissenters? Why might higher status group members be more effective dissenters?

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