Groupthink may still be a
hazard to your organization
University Malaysia Perlis
groupthink hypothesis provides us with a mode of understanding how groups
perceive opportunity, how exploitation decisions are made, how strategy paths
are chosen, and what biases and distortions of reality exist. The term
groupthink was first used by Irving Janis in 1972 to refer to the phenomena of a
group coming to a consensus without critically analyzing all the various issues
involved. The striving of the group for unanimity overrides the motivation to
objectively appraise alternative courses of action (Janis 1972, P. 9). Janis
(1982, P. 175) postulates that when the symptoms of groupthink are evident,
decisions are likely to be poor.
Groupthink is a very popular term used in literature carrying with it very
negative connotations. The word is usually used to describe decisions and their
resulting disasters. Groupthink is a
widely studied phenomenon and has been used to explain many historical political
decisions and their resulting consequences.
This metaphor can lead to a better understanding how groups make their
decisions, what information they used and didn’t use, what were their underlying
group assumptions and what other influential factors were involved.
The groupthink phenomenon arises where individual inclinations to be critical
and independently analyze issues are sacrificed in the interests of maintaining
harmony within the group so a state of cohesion can occur. This results in
people providing only opinions that they believe fall into the gambit of
acceptable thinking. Members sub-consciously want to be part of the group and
fear embarrassment, appearing outspoken and stubborn or disruptive to the flow
of the group. This is likely to be based on a feeling of low self-efficacy
(Baron 2005), and results in a consensus at the cost of rationality, with
potentially faulty premises and failure to look at important pieces of
information and potential consequences. As any doubts are suppressed, each
member of the group believes that the decision made had full support of all the
According to the hypothesis, groupthink is most likely to occur when a group is
very cohesive, insulated with lack of impartial leadership, lack procedure
methodology, and have a homogeneous social background and ideology (Janis 1972).
The groupthink process is actually triggered by some form of an external crisis,
event or failure which induces stress and feelings of low self efficacy on the
group, challenging their existing decision making processes and sometimes
creating moral dilemmas.
Janis (1972) postulated that the symptoms of groupthink are;
The illusion of invulnerability which creates over optimism of potential success
and willingness to take high risks,
An inherent belief of their own morality where the consequences of their
decisions are ignored,
Collective rationalization where warnings, signs and messages are rationalized
according to existing group assumptions,
Negatively generalized and stereotyped views of external people and entities,
where they view others as weak and foolish,
Self censorship and pressure on dissenters to carry the group line and not
express any disagreements, including the suppression of outside views
disagreeing with the group,
The illusion of unanimity in the belief that individual views conform to the
majority view and silence means consent,
Social pressure on those who have doubts about group consensus, and
There are self appointed ‘mind-guards’ to protect the leader and group from
information that may threaten any potential group cohesiveness.
Kowert (2002) also added that an overload of information may also contribute to
causing the groupthink phenomena.
The result of this is a defective decision making process characterized by;
The decision had an incomplete consideration of possible alternative courses of
action, 2. The problem will have clearly specified objectives, 3. There was a
failure to properly analyze risks of the preferred choice, 4. There was a
failure to reassess earlier discarded options, 5. There was a poor information
search, 6. There was bias in the selection and processing of information, and 7.
No contingencies were conceived.
The result of this process is a decision that has a very low probability of a
successful outcome. A diagram of the groupthink process is shown in Figure 1.
The effect of groupthink is to strengthen group cohesion at the cost of
increasing the influence of group bias and lowering of the quality of decisions.
The groupthink hypothesis doesn’t say that all decisions will be poor ones, only
that there is a high probability that they will be poor. The hypothesis just
shows one way that groups can get trapped within their own insular thinking and
decision making process. It shows where groups are vulnerable, especially
cohesive and harmonious groups which can very easily create their own
information filters and allow biases to influence them.
When a group of people such as managers share a similar background, then there
is danger of the groupthink phenomena occurring. This may be the case in many
businesses and particularly of the Chinese SMEs in South-East Asia. This
situation can impair the ability of the company to grow and change into new
trajectories. Diversity of thinking in strategy is needed in environments that
change quickly because of changing consumer demand, technologies, and intense
competition (Hambrick 1995).
Figure 1. The Groupthink Process.
The important lesson from the groupthink hypothesis is to understand the steps
that can be taken to avoid this phenomenon. There are many methods that can
assist groups avoid biases and selected patterning.
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the then US President John F. Kennedy took steps
to avoid the groupthink phenomenon happening again. He used outside expertise
and promoted the thorough questioning of different viewpoints, both within the
closed group and outside the group in departmental sub-groups. John F. Kennedy
was also deliberately absent at some meetings to allow a freer flow of opinions
and prevent group bias towards his own thinking (Janis 1972 pp. 148-149).
Group problem solving can be very useful, particularly when a group is socially
diverse and ‘cognitive diversity’
can exist and operate. A diverse and
functioning group can greatly enhance the problem solving because greater
knowledge is available, more ideas can be generated with better evaluation, an
improved ability to find errors and a wider diversity of experience. Under the
right circumstances, group thinking has much superior capabilities than
individual thinking (Klein 1999, P. 245).
Baron, R. S. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the Ubiquitous Nature
of Polarized Group Decision Making, In: Zanna, M. P. (Ed.),
Advances in Experimental Social Psychology,
San Diego, Elsevier Academic Press.
Hambrick, D.C. (1995). Fragmentation and the other problems CEOs have with their
top management teams, California
Management Review, Vol. 37, pp.
Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign
Policy Decisions and Fiascos. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Janis, I.L. (1982). Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Policy decisions and
Fiascos. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Klein, G. (1998). Sources of Power: How
People Make Decisions, Cambridge, MA.,
The MIT Press.
Kowert, P. A. (2002). Groupthink or deadlock: When do leaders learn from their
advisors? Albany, Blackwell Publishing.
‘groupthink’ phenomenon only exists if the symptomatic conditions are present.
‘Groupthink’ decisions may not necessary result in a poor decision and failure.
There are many other reasons besides groupthink that can lead to a poor decision
and failure, for example; the lack of necessary information, poor judgment, lack
of experience of the issues, luck, unexpected actions by competitors,
government, and suppliers, etc., group competence, the heuristics used
(discussed later in this chapter), and inadequate time for proper decision
 Janis (1972) first used the concept to
appraise the Korean War stalemate and Vietnam War escalation. In 1982, Janis
examined the Watergate cover-up. Kramer (1998) examined the Bay of Pigs and
Vietnam decisions, with additional evidence casting some doubt on Janis’s
analytical conclusions. Hart (1994) and Whyte (1998) enhanced the groupthink
hypothesis. Smith (1984) analyzed the US rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Vaughan
(1996) and Schwartz and Wald (2003) looked at the way NASA operated in relation
to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
 Modified from Janis (1982, P. 244)
 Janis (1982) suggested that a number of
processes be included in group processes to eliminate the pitfalls of groupthink
and develop more impartiality. These steps include; assigning each member of the
group the role of a critical evaluator, higher people should abstain from
expressing opinions when assigning tasks to the group, several independent
groups should be set up to bring in more ideas and points of view, all
alternatives should be examined, each member should discuss the issues with
trusted people outside the group, invite outside experts to give their opinions,
and a group member be assigned the role of ‘Devil’s advocate’.
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