Group Think is Alive and Well


How groups make decisions is a key part of human living. “Group think” is alive and well. If we know the dangers in group think then we can take steps to avoid the traps.

In their decision making, groups become more like the majority of the group and become more extreme in their decisions. Groups actually tend to diminish diversity, rather than expand on the variance within a group. This is particularly relevant at work where we tend to work with people within a single or narrow occupational group and where group acceptance is a strong driver.


Over the holiday season I read an interesting article on the subject in the Harvard Business Review and went to a study by the authors. 

Groups Become More Polarised
In this study the researchers studied the opinions of groups on three polarising social issues.  They wanted to know what would happen as groups made decisions on three social issues: global warming, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples.


The researchers chose two cities in Colorado, USA. One city, Boulder, was chosen because it is known to be predominantly liberal. The second city, Colorado Springs, was chosen because it is known to be predominantly conservative. Participants were first asked to rate their own opinion on the three subjects and then in groups of between five and seven people to discuss the topics to try to come to a consensus. 


What happened through the dynamic of group discussion? The key result was that groups became more extreme in their decisions. The liberals of Boulder became more liberal in their opinions through the process of group decision making and the conservatives of Colorado Springs became more conservative as a group. 


For example, the question on global warming was, “The United States should sign an international agreement to reduce the greenhouse gases produced in this country that contribute to global warming”. On a 10-point scale (from 1 = Disagree Very Strongly to 10 = Agree Very Strongly) before the group discussion the conservatives of Colorado Springs scored an average of 5.13. But after the group discussion they shifted to a significantly more conservative score of 2.97. 
Reasons for Group Think

The researchers list four possible reasons to explain group polarisation. 


1. Social influences: We are sensitive about being accepted by a group and being perceived favourably. As we hear the opinions of others in the group, people tend to adjust their position slightly in the direction of the dominant position.  


2. Shared identity: Social influence is heightened when people have a sense of identity within their group. In-group norms become more polarised versus the views of people outside of the group.  


3. Selective arguments: In most groups there will be some initial inclinations on a topic. So a dynamic occurs where people start hearing other people’s views and invariably individuals hear more views of the majority opinion. Opinions become skewed in that direction. 


4. Individual confidence: If people lack confidence they tend toward the middle. In a group, as people hear more views similar to their own they gain confidence that that view is correct and hence the group is more convinced they are right and thus become more extreme. 

(Source: Sunstein, C, Schkade, D and Hastie, R, “What Happened on Deliberation Day” at University of Chicago Law School. See also Sunstein, C and Hastie, R, “Making Dumb Groups Smarter” in Harvard Business ReviewDecember 2014)

Tips for Leaders

Once we know that groups suffer group think and the reasons for this phenomenon then leaders can take steps to reduce the risk, and to make better decisions. 


1. Leader holds back: For a group to have the benefit of the range of views amongst its members, it is usually best for a leader to hold back in the sharing of their opinion. If a leader is too quick or too definite in the sharing of their opinion then others will be less inclined to share and the group opinion will shift in the direction of the leader’s opinion. A leader should listen more than talk, at least in the early stages of exploration of issues.


2. Monitor social signals: A leader should watch the signals of group inclusion or exclusion of the team members. Are people signalling support for other people or are they rolling their eyes in disapproval as one of the team speaks? The leader should ensure that individuals are supported in their views, especially if those views differ from the majority of the group. 


3. Approval-seeking signals: Likewise a leader should watch for team members appearing to seek other’s approval and not sharing what they really think. Watch for people holding back, or using hesitant language, or glancing to check other’s facial expressions.  


4. Acknowledge roles: In decision-making and planning sessions it pays to start with acknowledging each person’s role. Have people state their expertise and experiences that they bring into the room. This gives people a licence and an expectation that they will share that expertise during discussions. This is especially important if one person’s view is different to the majority view – it will help reduce group think.


5. Period for contrary opinions: As the leader, be sensitive to ensure that the range of opinions is being canvassed – that the group is benefiting from the diversity of views and that the group is not just in violent agreement. Alfred P Sloan was the head of General Motors Corporation in the 1920s-40s. He is credited as saying, after a meeting of senior executives and obviously concerned about group think, “If we are all in agreement on the decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion on this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” 



Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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