Groupthink may still be a hazard to your organization

The 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[1].
Groupthink is a widely studied phenomenon and has been used to explain many
historical political decisions and their resulting consequences[2].
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

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).

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[4].
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
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).

Murray Hunter is associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, and  consultant to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology. Murray is the inventor/author of a number of chemistry patents in Australia and as a researcher was the first to report many new natural compounds in international journals like the prestigious Journal of Essential Oil Research.  


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. 110-127.

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.

[1] The ‘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 making.

[2] 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.

[3] Modified from
Janis (1982, P. 244)

[4] 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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