Group Thinking Its Impact On Decision Making

Group Thinking & its Impact on Decision Makings:

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Have you ever been part of a group that was making an important decision and you felt uncomfortable with the direction things were headed?

Did you speak up? Or did you keep your concerns to yourself? And what was the outcome of the group's decision? Do you ever wish you had voiced your reservations more strongly?

"Groupthink," describes the tendency of some groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas.

Consequences of Fear& Hierarchy.

The consequences of fear and hierarchy are disastrous not just for the body. They can be catastrophic for projects or organizations, too. Let's look at a very high-profile case, the loss of space shuttles Challenger.

The Challenger Tragedy

In January 1986, the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated soon after launch, killing everyone on board. The investigation found that a problem with something called an 'O-ring' (a kind of seal) had caused a solid rocket booster, on which the shuttle rides, to blow up. Engineers had pointed out the O-ring problem well before the shuttle's launch but were overruled by their bosses.

One of those engineers, Roger Boisjoly, was a seal specialist. A few months before the launch, Boisjoly had written a memo explicitly warning management of the danger of "a catastrophe of the highest order - loss of human life".

On launch night, because of very cold weather that could affect the seal's performance, Boisjoly and other engineers had "fought like hell" to postpone the launch.

Possible Reasons For Such Behavior

Lest you think all engineers are good and all managers are bad, note that several managers were engineers themselves. They had other pressures to deal with.

Several earlier launches had already been postponed.

President Reagan was due to make his State of the Union address in which he would mention this.

NASA also had some unexpected competition from the European Space Agency.

These factors almost certainly put pressure on the managers.

In contrast, you would assume that everyone involved with shuttle missions would be clearly told to shout out the bad news.

But this doesn't happen because the organization structure allows only one kind of news to travel upwards: good news.

As with Boisjoly, the system gets rid of bad news mercilessly: it eliminates the messenger.

Before the Challenger disaster, a 1 in 100 failure risk as assessed by engineers became a 1 in 100,000 failure risk by the time it reached top management.

The management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy."

If no individual was at fault, what was the problem then? Groupthink was blamed. Groupthink is a phenomenon in which a group of people - however smart - ends up making poor decisions by disregarding facts, just to maintain consensus.

Larry Mulloy, NASA's rocket booster project manager at the time of the Challenger disaster admitted, "We at NASA got into a groupthink about this [O-ring] problem."

But the engineers themselves had recommended against launching, so how did they become part of groupthink?

Isn't it strange that groupthink usually results in group members thinking what the bosses want them to think? "When the boss had spoken, they might quiet down.". In short, the bosses confused expertise with status.

But let's now look at the pressure on NASA management.

NASA's chief is appointed by the U.S. government, meaning NASA can be subjected to political pressures.

No political gains could be made from the space program, and NASA's budget was cut by over 40% in real terms during the 1990s.

NASA's credibility with the [Bush] Administration and Congress for delivering what is promised … hangs in the balance."

Without a doubt, executives did not intentionally disregard safety - no one would in such high-stakes missions. But they had other pressures to which they succumbed.

Hence the real problem was the status-driven dictatorship culture, which enabled these pressures to be pushed down the chain. While a safety culture was obviously important, a freedom culture was far more important.

JFK's Legacy and Groupthink

Perhaps you can identify with John F. Kennedy.

This article looks at a specific example: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro that became a fiasco,

What happened? In 1961, CIA and military leaders wanted to use Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro. After lengthy consideration among his top advisors, Kennedy approved a covert invasion.

Advance press reports alerted Castro to the threat. Over 1,400 invaders at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) were vastly outnumbered. Lacking air support, necessary ammunition, and an escape route, nearly 1,200 surrendered. Others died.

Kennedy's top advisors were unwilling to challenge bad ideas because it might disturb perceived or desired group concurrence.

Presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger, for instance, presented serious objections to the invasion in a memorandum to the president but suppressed his doubts at the team meetings.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy privately admonished Schlesinger to support the president's decision to invade.

At one crucial meeting, JFK called on each member for his vote for or against the invasion. Many members assumed other members agreed with the invasion plan and voted for it.

Declassified CIA documents help illuminate the invasion's flaws.

Top CIA leaders blamed Kennedy for not authorizing vital air strikes.

Other CIA analysts fault the wishful thinking that the invasion would stimulate an uprising among Cuba's populace and military.

Planners assumed the invaders could simply fade into the mountains for guerilla operations. Trouble was, eighty miles of swampland separated the bay from the mountains.

The list goes on.

Groupthink symptoms

The illusion of unanimity regarding the viewpoint held by the majority in the group and an emphasis on team play.

A view of the "opposition" as generally inept, incompetent, and incapable of countering effectively any action by the group, no matter how risky the decision or how high the odds are against the plan of action succeeding.

Self-censorship of group members in which overt disagreements are avoided, facts that might reduce support for the emerging majority view are suppressed, faulty assumptions are not questioned, and personal doubts are suppressed in the form of group harmony.

Self-appointed mind guards within the group that function to prevent anyone from undermining its apparent unanimity and to protect its members from unwelcome ideas and adverse information that may threaten consensus.

Direct pressure on any dissenting group member who expresses strong reservations or challenges, or argues against the apparent unanimity of the group.

An expression of' self-righteousness that leads members to believe their actions are moral and ethical, thus inclining them to disregard any ethical or moral objections to their behavior.

Preventive Measures to prevent Group Think Disasters

Define rules & processes for decision making & uphold them.

Divide group members into smaller groups to encourage brainstorming before sharing their ideas with the larger group.

The diversity of viewpoints. Attempt to structure the group so that there are different viewpoints.

Support productive debate & conflict & leader encouragement. In most organizations, group members need encouragement to feel free to disagree with the boss or group leader. The subordinates in the group must feel free to disagree if they are to contribute the best of their thinking. The leader should encourage free expression of minority viewpoints.

Make it a priority to examine all alternatives before making a decision.

Invite outside experts to share their perspectives & insights with the group.

Ask leaders to uphold their opinions until after the group has put forth its idea or opinions.

Have a designated evaluator or devil's advocate in the group to challenge ideas.

Flat Organizations model too prevents group thinking.

The fact that we're still stuck with the top-down model shows that you can improve a caterpillar as much as you want, but you will still end up with a caterpillar. To get a butterfly, we need a quantum leap in thinking.

However, freedom is still not institutionalized - the extent to which subordinates are empowered still depends on their bosses, and even a 'flat' organization with just two levels cannot be called truly flat. The hierarchical command-and-control model is still with us.

Yes, organizations do try to provide a semblance of power balance through tools such as 360-degree feedback. But that's like getting a dictator to ask for feedback.

Benefits of Group Decision Making; Group thinking is always not wrong.

There also has been an emphasis on group participation and decision-making in organizational development (OD) activities. 98 percent of the firms used participative methods in identifying and solving organizational problems.

Group inputs are sought in these efforts because the quality of the contributions may be more than if they came from an individual. Finally, group decision-making may be preferred because of the belief that "all of us know more than anyone of us knows." Though it is not entirely supportable, this belief holds that the group's multiple perspectives, talents, and areas of expertise brought to bear in solving problems, setting goals, establishing policies, and carrying out projects or activities result in a superior product.

Another reason for favoring group decision making deals with the diffusion of responsibility. Spreading of responsibility may appear very attractive when a good decision calls for actions that are unpopular, unpleasant, or risky. A single person may not be inclined to pursue a course of action because he or she alone will be held accountable for any negative consequences, whereas a group may decide to go on with an unpleasant, or risky, action because responsibility is shared among its members.


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