In 1972, Irving L. Janis presented a set of hypotheses that he extracted from observing small groups performing problem-solving tasks; he collectively referred to these hypotheses as groupthink (Janis, 1972). He defined groupthink as “a quick and easy way to refer to 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” (Janis, 1982, p.9). Groups are usually successful because group members bring varied ideas, collective knowledge, and they tend to be focused while working together. Groups can be advantageous to both individuals and businesses. They are valuable to individuals because they are able to learn new skills, get feedback from others, and recognize their own strengths and weaknesses.
The most important function of groups for businesses is to accomplish tasks that individuals cannot do on their own. The Bay of Pigs invasion, Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, and the Challenger space shuttle explosion are examples of situations where group communication failed. Groupthink can lead to bad judgments and decisions being made. This paper will look at the conditions, the indicators or symptoms, and the ways to counteract groupthink. The conditions for groupthink to happen are important to recognize. When a homogenous, highly cohesive group is only concerned with maintaining unanimity, they fail to evaluate all their alternatives and options. It is obvious that a group suffers from groupthink when the group feels apathetic about its task; group members do not expect to be successful; one group member has very high credibility—group members tend to believe what he or she says; one group member is very persuasive, and group members do not usually challenge ideas; it is expected that group members will agree with one another (Beebe, Beebe, and Ivy, 2001, p. 282).
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The members also see themselves as part of an in-group working as an out-group opposed to their goals. The Challenger space shuttle disaster is what can happen when groupthink occurs. Stress can also be a condition that allows for groupthink to take place. As group members realize that immense external and internal pressures come with their task, the level of stress rises. The desire to reduce the stress motivates the members to come to an outcome quickly. Effective groups need to have clear goals, mutual trust among all participants, accountability shared by everyone, external support, and training. There are many indicators or symptoms that groupthink could be happening in a decision-making process. Groups dominated by groupthink tend to make unethical decisions when compared to the decisions that could have been reached using a fair, open, and rational decision-making process. Many groups have an illusion of invulnerability and they think that they are not capable of being wrong. When the group believes that they are doing the right thing in all circumstances and that it is best for everyone, then they are showing inherent morality.
Groups are often close-minded about the situation that is occurring. They ignore the information that does not back up the opinions of the group members. This occurred with the Challenger because the scientists from one group were telling the others to delay the launch. There had been pressure from all around to launch the space shuttle that they did not listen to the scientists and cause seven lives to be lost in the disaster. When any of these occur in a group, changes must be made to ensure that it will not happen in the future. There are many practices that can help prevent groupthink from happening. One way of preventing groupthink is to make each member of the group a “critical evaluator”(Janis 1982, p262). Group members will make an effort to find problems in-group situations by evaluating them individually. The leader must accept criticism if this is to work (Janis, 1982). Problems can appear because the leader feels that there is no centralized control within the group.
Another solution is to have many different groups work on the same problem under separate leaders (Janis, 1982). Every group would come up with different ideas, and the pressure to agree with each other is not as great. Sometimes group members are more comfortable with sharing their disagreement in a smaller group than in a larger group (Beebe et al., 2001, p. 283). The problem with this is that information is likely to become known if more people are aware of the situation. Groups that take this approach are less likely to be locked into one solution. Another alternative solution is to assign someone to be a devil’s advocate—to look for disadvantages to a proposed idea. This strategy is especially useful if no one offers any disagreement about a position (Beebe et al, 2001, p. 283). The devil’s advocate must also be willing to vocally share their ideas with the rest of the group to force them to take a second look at the decision that they made. The ways that groupthink is prevented are very important because it can eliminate some future fatal mistakes if it is taken seriously. The plan of one person is more likely to be inconsistent than the plan of a group. The more people contributing their opinions will help the group put together a creative and inclusive plan.
I have been a part of many different types of groups and I believe that the best way to avoid groupthink is to have an understanding and recognition of the symptoms. Groups are useful and necessary in many different situations. If groups were not a part of business or school, then the only people who would have a say in the dealing of matters would be the chief person in charge. All the decisions that were made would be made to benefit themselves. Effective teams avoid groupthink by striving for group diversity—in age, gender, background, experience, and training. They encourage open discussion, search for relevant information, evaluate many alternatives, consider how a decision will be implemented, and plan for contingencies in case the decision does not work out (Guffey, 2000, p.40). Groupthink is a dilemma that can have devastating consequences. Good communication skills are crucial for any results to occur. If group members are aware and frequently checking for it, the negative effects can be avoided. If members are not made aware of the groupthink dilemma, then it can limit the significance of groups and make them ineffective.
- Beebe, S.A., Beebe, S.J., & Ivy, D.K. (2001). Communication: Principles for a lifetime. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Guffey, M.E. (2000). Business communication: Process and product. New York: South-Western College Publishing.
- Janis, L.J. (1972). Victims of groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Janis, L.J. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.