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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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3.2.7 Ways that groups go wrong

Before leaving Reading 2, it is worth mentioning some of the characteristic ways that groups 'go wrong'. Why should a group, asked to design a camel, produce a horse? You might expect that when we pool the talents, experience and knowledge of a group, the result would be better, not worse, than that of any individual member. But as groups design 'horses' so frequently there must be some fairly familiar decision-making processes at work. Probably the most common problems are those that have already been discussed: unclear objectives, multiple tasks, the size and balance of the group, and non-completion of the stages of group development. However, there are other factors that don't fit easily into these categories. One such factor is what is termed 'groupthink'.

Groupthink is a process whereby a group collaborates systematically to ignore evidence suggesting that what it has done, or is planning to do, is ill advised. It is like a giant blind spot operating on the whole group. An example of groupthink is given in Box 2.1.

Box 2.1 Example of groupthink

Twelve people joined a group to help them give up smoking. On joining, each agreed to observe two rules: to make an immediate and conscientious effort to give up smoking, and to attend every meeting. At the second meeting of the group two of the most dominant members took the position that heavy smoking was an almost incurable addiction. The majority of the others soon agreed that no-one could be expected to cut down drastically. One heavy smoker took issue with this consensus, arguing that by using willpower he had stopped smoking since joining the group, and that everyone else could do the same. Most of the others ganged up against the man who was deviating from the group consensus. Then, at the beginning of the next meeting, the deviant announced that he had made an important decision:

I have learned from experience in this group that you can only follow one of the rules [try to give up, and attend all meetings], you can't follow both. And so I have decided that I will continue to attend every meeting but I have gone back to smoking two packs a day and I will not make any effort to stop smoking again until after the last meeting.

Whereupon the other members beamed at him and applauded enthusiastically, welcoming him back to the fold. No one commented on the fact that the whole point of the meetings was to help each individual to cut down on smoking as rapidly as possible.

(Adapted from Janis, 1972, p.8)

Groups affected by, or perhaps it would be better to say infected by, groupthink make bad decisions in four main ways:

  • They make decisions that subvert their own official goals (as in Box 2.1). Faced with a decision where the achievement of those goals conflicts with the preservation of easy-going unanimity in the group, the official goals go out of the window.

  • They don't test their decisions by considering information or opinions that contradict them or which point to substantial difficulties in implementing the decisions. Indeed, in the grip of groupthink, they often take care to screen out awkward facts or ideas. Hence, they are often surprised when their decisions do not work out as they hoped.

  • There is a well-documented tendency for such groups to take more risky decisions than any individual member would take, or believe to be warranted. This is generally called the 'risky shift'.

  • They have a disturbing tendency to make decisions that treat others as 'the enemy'. This can result in groups paying others scant consideration and respect, a fact that is particularly pernicious and accounts for some of the worst excesses of discrimination against other groups, distinguished on the basis of race, creed or gender.

So much for the need to take groupthink seriously; how can we tell if a group is suffering from it? Fortunately, there are a number of indicators that help us to diagnose groupthink:

  1. First, some groups are especially vulnerable. I have already mentioned that it is most often found in groups that are friendly and collaborative; more precisely, they are rather cosy. The group has settled into a habit of discouraging and frowning on overt disagreement and conflict. When that is the case, individual members are more ready to suppress divergent ideas and, more powerfully, less inclined to think hard about whether or not they really agree with what is being decided.

  2. Second, groups which have a certain prestige, and regard themselves as an elite group in some way, are also particularly susceptible. Groups which are at the head of some hierarchy often feel this way about themselves. The hierarchy doesn't have to be as large as a big company or a hospital – management committees of clubs or local associations are often the worst afflicted.

  3. Finally, some groups are well insulated from opinion that might correct false assumptions and misperceptions. Design teams often manage to get themselves into this position, sometimes deliberately because what they are doing is a close commercial secret, and sometimes by accident because they can't be bothered to undertake the lengthy business of explaining what they are doing to an outsider. The leaders of public-interest groups can easily get themselves into this position too – remote from a body of members who pay subscriptions and get a newsletter, and with few opportunities to comment on the decisions of the leaders.

More precise indicators come from the way the group goes about its work. In all groups the leader has a key role in establishing the processes and procedures of the group; he or she usually has the advantages of expertise, status, control of the agenda, and the power to distribute or withhold benefits to the members. If the leader uses these advantages to state preferences and propose a particular decision right from the outset of a discussion, it will be hard for other members to resist. A more sophisticated variant of this is when the leader announces that the group has to decide between a limited range of options, usually two. This gives the appearance of allowing genuine discussion, but has the effect of limiting the group's focus of attention in much the same way. With leadership of this kind, especially in a cohesive group, it will be easy to slide into groupthink.

The last indicator of groupthink is the one that should flash the loudest warning signals: it is the feeling of unbounded optimism, even euphoria. The group feels immensely proud of itself, and feels sure that it can overcome all the problems and lead the way to a bright new future. As all the members agree, each feels that what they have decided must be right. In these circumstances it is not just unpleasant to spoil things by taking a hard look at the limits of the group's power and the damage that might be done if it is wrong, it is also seen as rank disloyalty.

The second process whereby groups can go wrong involves seeking internal or external scapegoats. It is usual to find groups making a scapegoat of either the weakest member or the group leader. In other cases the group blames people external to the group for not doing their job or providing the appropriate resources for the group to be successful. In the latter case this external blaming is a blind spot. However, blame solves nothing and only serves to perpetuate the mistakes made.

Both of the processes described above are examples of groups resisting change in some sense. Where a group has not functioned effectively, then its first response is likely to be to defend itself, just like an individual. Under these conditions it adopts a 'fight-or-flight' attitude and this dominates the operation of the group. Ignoring evidence or blaming individuals are simply devices for resisting facing up to the need for change. Groups resist change for all the same reasons that individuals resist change – it is uncomfortable and potentially painful. This is accentuated in a group in which the individuals have very strong psychological contracts, that is, where the members have strong investments in the group. If the psychological contracts are largely unconscious, the group will probably have invented some rationalisation to explain its functioning. Before such a group can change its operation, it will need to give up this rationalisation and examine the psychological issues beneath it. This involves a more substantial change than the group can easily handle; it is a second-order change, involving a change in structure as well as objective.