Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0300, May 1, 2007 ....

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Welcome to issue 300. Boy my fingers are tired. Glad I didn't have to write these non-stop! To celebrate our tricentiniel issue, we're offering discounts on our Basic and Premium Lifetime memberships to FacilitatorU. This is quite an impressive package at the regular price but a steal at this price. Please have a look at the bottom of this issue and pass this on to friends and colleagues who may also be interested. The sale ends this Friday.

This week's article was submitted by my colleague and MFJ reader Barbara Warheit, "When Group Thinking Goes Out of Control." In this article, we explore a term we're all familiar with, "Groupthink," but may not know all that much about its causes and cures. We'll review Irving Janis’ eight symptoms of Groupthink and offer actions we can take to reduce the possibility of the formation of groupthink.

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The Point

When Group Thinking Goes Out of Control
Avoid the pitfalls of Groupthink

Group Process Skill

Have you ever sat in a meeting thinking to yourself, “Everyone is just agreeing with each other to get this meeting over with. No one really cares about the outcome nor wants to go against the power or the majority in the room.” If so, you could be dealing with a phenomenon that psychologist, Irving Janis, coined as groupthink.

Groupthink occurs when rules for decision-making are unclear and when there’s considerable pressure to make a good decision quickly. Groupthink also has a tendency to happen when the group is highly cohesive and members have similar backgrounds. When there is pressure for group members to go along and no incentive for them to think for themselves, they become less likely to speak up and realistically appraise all the possible alternatives available to them before making a decision.

How do you know that Groupthink is happening? Here are Janis’ Eight symptoms of Groupthink to give you some clues:

1. Illusion of invulnerability – creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

2. Collective rationalization – members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions

3. Belief in inherent morality – members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

5. Direct pressure on dissenters – members are under pressure not to express arguments against any group views.

6. Self-censorship – doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

7. Illusion of unanimity – the majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.


How Can You Prevent Group Think?

The experts on decision-making tell us that reducing groupthink can be accomplished by taking the following actions.

  • Beware of leader bias. Suggest that leadership remain impartial by refraining from stating their preferences and expectations up front.

  • Be a critical evaluator. Assume the role of “critical evaluator” and encourage your fellow members to think for themselves and participate fully.

  • Be a Devil’s Advocate. Use a Devil’s Advocate role to question all the group’s decisions.

  • Sleep on it. Hold a “second-chance meeting” to offer one last opportunity to chose another course of action.

  • Divide and objectify. Suggest dividing the group to discuss issues in subgroups and then come back together to discuss differences before coming to consensus.

  • Consult with content experts. Invite content experts to attend meetings on a staggered basis to share their ideas. Encourage these outside experts to challenge the thinking of the group.

  • Evaluate warning signals. Encourage the group to evaluate warning signals from outside forces; listen to what your rivals are saying and construct alternative scenarios of that could account for their intentions.

These are all effective suggestions to prevent groupthink; interestingly enough, they all suggest us to just think for ourselves. Consciously think about underlying assumptions and implications of the group’s decisions and challenge others to do the same. Any time you are asked to participate in a group situation, remember you were asked to participate for a reason. Knowledge is power; always search for knowledge and share it openly with the group. Even if it is a challenge to get the group to hear you, it is worth the effort in the end.

A Side Trip to Abilene

Another phenomenon related to Groupthink is the Abilene Paradox. The Abilene Paradox asserts that groups have just as many problems managing their agreements as they do their disagreements, as was observed by Jerry B. Harvey in his article, “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management.” In it, he explains the theories of social conformity and social thinking, which suggest that human beings often feel large disincentive to acting contrary to the majority of the group.

What can you do to jog your group when they're in groupthink?

  • Think for yourself. Assume the roles of “critical evaluator” or Devil’s Advocate and encourage your fellow members to think for themselves and participate fully.

  • Are we going to Abilene? When you suspect groupthink may be an issue in your group, share the Abilene Paradox with them. When you sense your group might be sinking into groupthink, ask the question “Are we going to Abilene?”

  • Would this be considered the sane action on an individual?  Groups often do things that would be considered pathological if done by an individual. Before your group settles on an action, ask the above question of the group. If the answer is “no,” perhaps you’ll want to encourage them to reconsider this action.

About the Author. This act was contributed by Barbara A. Warheit, a training and development practitioner experienced in facilitation, team building and organizational performance improvement strategies in the healthcare setting.


Have you been a victim of groupthink? How have you helped your groups prevent or free themselves from its grip? We'd love to hear your experiences and perspectives on this. Just reply to this email and share your story, challenge, or perspective.


Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, by Irving L. Janis

Janis defines groupthink as the "deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment" in the interest of group solidarity. Pressure to conform. Formal and informal attempts are made to discourage discussion of divergent views. Groups exert great pressure on individual members to conform. Opposing ideas dismissed. Any individual or outside group that criticizes or opposes a decision receives little or no attention from the group. Group members tend to show strong favoritism toward their own ideas in the manner by which information is processed and evaluated, thus guaranteeing that their
ideas will win out. --Sam Zaki (Bloomfield Hills, MI, USA)--

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