Shirey, Maria R. PhD, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, FAAN
Evidence-based decision making entails examining the best available data to make sound choices among alternatives. In the presence of time pressures and a desire to please, consensus-driven group dynamics may expedite decision making but sacrifice thoughtful dialogue and deliberation. One example of a detrimental group dynamic leading to flawed decision making and related strategy formulation involves group think. This article discusses the concept of group think and examines the effects on organizational strategy and change. Suggestions are presented for addressing group think as a means to maximize organizational performance.
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Overview of Group Think
Conceptualization and Manifestations
The term group think derives from the research of Yale University social psychologist Irving Janis.1 Group think may be defined as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”2(p237) According to Janis,2 group think occurs when cohesiveness is high and when individuals in a group automatically apply the “preserve group harmony” test to decision making. Although group members may regard like-minded thinking as an asset, this “superglue of solidarity that bonds people together often causes their mental process to get stuck.”2(p237)
The theoretical conceptualization of group think, also termed concurrence-seeking tendency, has distinct antecedents and related consequences (Figure 1).2 Three categories of antecedents that predispose to group think include constituent group formation (decision maker cohesiveness), organizational structural faults (group insulation, leadership partiality, absence of norms requiring methodical procedures, member homogeneity), and provocative situational context (high stress from external threats, low member self-esteem, or individuality). More current findings from other researchers expand the original Janis theory1 to include a fourth antecedent, time limitation.3 Heinemann and colleagues3 also assert that group think not only occurs in groups with a high sense of cohesiveness, but this dynamic can occur in groups with a false sense of cohesion.
Group think antecedents may exist alone or in combination. The theory assumes that too much group cohesion, combined with an insular environment and a lack of procedures that require exploring divergent thought, predisposes to concurrence-seeking behaviors. External pressures or threats from leaders and time constraints, combined with lack of independent thinking, lead to excessive group agreement, which ultimately results in less than desirable decision making. The specific consequences associated with group think manifest in 3 broad categories: symptoms of group think, symptoms of defective decision making, and poor decision outcomes.
Within the symptoms of group think, Janis2 documents 3 types of subcategories, each with distinct nomenclature and manifestations: overestimation of the group, closed mindedness, and pressures toward uniformity. First, overestimation of the group includes an illusion of invulnerability and belief in inherent morality of the group. Illusion of invulnerability occurs because of excessive optimism that encourages extreme risk taking. Members of the group tend to have a belief in their inherent morality, which predisposes to infallibility potentiating a tendency to ignore ethical or moral consequences of decisions. Second, closed mindedness includes collective rationalizations and stereotypes of out-groups. Collective rationalization may become evident and manifest as members discounting warnings and not reconsidering assumptions. The group may become so insular that it has a stereotyped view of out-groups, often misconstruing potentially helpful outsiders as enemies. Third, pressures toward uniformity address self-censorship, illusion of unanimity, direct pressure on dissenters, and self-appointed mind guards. Self-censorship refers to group members remaining silent and not expressing doubts or divergent thinking relative to the group consensus. An illusion of unanimity prevails as the majority’s view becomes assumed as unanimous. Direct pressure on dissenters may be evident, and this influences individual group members not to question the group’s prevailing arguments. Self-appointed mind guards further complicate the decision making as certain group members protect the group or the leader from information that, if accepted, would be contradictory to the group’s cohesive viewpoints or decisions.
Symptoms of defective decision making include incomplete information and failure. Incomplete information has to do with poor research, lack of due diligence, lack of proper objective setting, and lack of alternative considerations. Failure ensues when the risks of preferred choices are not examined or initially rejected alternatives are not reappraised. Similarly, failure occurs because of narrow-minded thinking that fails to consider contingency planning options or plan B. In general, the end results of defective decision making are poor organizational outcomes. Janis2 warns, however, that not all bad decisions are the result of group think.
Most evidence regarding group think originates from the early work of Janis1 and involves case reports, laboratory experiments, and empirical studies. A review of the first 25 years of group think research4 and analysis from subsequent decades5 suggests that the body of work continues to have considerable heuristic value. Despite some controversy since its initial publication,1 group think theory is well accepted and found to occur in a wide range of group settings. Group think is studied as part of advanced decision making and mission outcomes at the tactical level in the military.6 In addition, group think is well studied in academia,7 the business sector,8 sports management,9 and to a lesser extent, the healthcare clinical setting.3,10 The literature review for this article, however, did not surface empirical studies exploring group think in a nursing leadership practice context.
Effects of Group Think on Organizational Strategy and Change
In the presence of group think, groups examine few alternatives, are not highly selective in gathering data for analysis, fail to challenge assumptions, and do not look beyond the immediate environment for answers or expert direction. With group think, flawed assumptions lead to poor decision making, which translates to misguided strategy development and implementation of organizational change that may be ill advised. Ultimately, group think may be costly and inefficient.
Real-life examples of group think exist in many industries and business sectors. The US space shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred January 28, 1986, is a classic example of the consequences of group think. In examining the Challenger disaster, Janis2 concluded that the space launch proceeded despite safety concerns. Before launch, engineers had voiced concerns about the O-ring seals, which had not been tested before at the anticipated mission-related temperatures. Although the Thiokol engineers (designers of the O-ring seals) initially opposed the launch, they were pressured to reconsider and reverse their original “no-go” position. As the final launch readiness procedures were reviewed, the ultimate authority who could cancel the mission was not told about the O-ring seal concerns and made the “go” decision based upon incomplete information.
The Challenger disaster is just one example of group think in action. Unfortunately, this type of scenario is repeated daily in work environments and board rooms all over the world. Group think, however, is avoidable, but eliminating it from organizations requires putting in place precise countermeasures to prevent this potentially catastrophic problem.
Preventing Group Think
Preventing group think entails implementing targeted strategies that address known group think antecedents. Each of the 4 categories of antecedents requires a unique set of countermeasures (Table 1).
Table. Targeted Stra...Image Tools
Constituent group formation strategies include addressing group member composition. This strategy does not entail shying away from groups, but rather requires finding the right groups of people to successfully work together. Selecting the right team members necessitates thoughtful member vetting processes and understanding the elements needed for effective group decision making. Surowiecki,11 in his book Wisdom of Crowds, asserts that groups may be made to work well and that effective group decision making requires 4 key elements. First, a diverse group is needed. Although the conventional wisdom may argue that “two heads are better than one,” selecting a diverse group of thinkers enhances the chances that the 2 best heads grouped together may generate the most optimal decisions. Second, group members who are willing and able to act independently are most desired. This consideration allows for individual critical evaluation to surface. Third, groups should be centralized such that their affiliation is not exclusively aligned with one perspective. In this approach, group members are not so engrained in their thinking that open mindedness could not prevail. Lastly, a method for effectively aggregating the individual intelligences of group members must be established.
Organizational structural faults require strategies such as putting norms and processes in place to direct group work maintaining certain checks and balances. Using external content experts (or a scholar in residence) can provide new knowledge, fresh perspective, and contrary thinking to simulate alternative scenarios. Facilitators external to the group and those having no vested interest in the decision-making process can also enhance open dialogue. Rewarding alternative thinking and assigning the devil’s advocate role to at least 1 member each meeting could encourage group members to more openly consider divergent thoughts and ask the difficult questions.12 Incorporating evaluation metrics that ensure structural faults are addressed within groups may help to stifle group think, thus maximizing decision making and related outcomes.
Provocative situational context strategies necessitate targeting group members who are not only independent thinkers but who are also courageous and not easily swayed. In understanding their fiduciary obligation to the group and their decision-making role, accountable and strong individuals will more likely withstand group and external pressures to make responsible choices.
Time limitation strategies involve allocating enough time for group process development, thoughtful reflection, and careful decision making. This strategy considers evidence that teams require time to gel and that, with team maturity, individual team members develop the needed confidence to challenge group think.13 Time-related strategies also entail leaving open the opportunity to reexplore alternative scenarios and facilitate second-chance meetings to ascertain that the final decision selected is indeed the best one possible.
This article discusses group think as a detrimental yet preventable group dynamic that may lead to less than desirable decision making, strategy implementation, and organizational change. Strategies for minimizing group think antecedents are also presented.
Although much research is available to support this long-standing theory and its utility, little empirical exploration about group think is evident in the nursing leadership literature. This gap suggests that more thinking should be given to analyzing the effectiveness of group dynamics and the daily potential for group think, a phenomenon that can be costly, but is avoidable. By implementing suggested strategies, the various antecedents of group think may be addressed and quality of group decision making maximized to benefit organizations.
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© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.