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  • Writer's pictureDannielle K Pearson

The Importance of “Abating” Group Think

Dissent is not a word often associated with positive outcomes.  Its, very meaning is to disagree with commonly held beliefs.  A disagreement that infers action, like the Twisted Sister song “We aren’t going to take it,” dissension feels rebellious and reserved for renegades, hardly the hallmark of a functioning society.   The only problem with this, is not every firmly held belief, opinion, plan, or idea is worth honouring, holding on to, or agreeing with.  Many stand in the way of progress. A reluctance towards dissension maintains disfunction.   

I grew up in Chicago, during the early to mid 90s every public school in the Chicagoland area ran the “Bo knows best” campaign.  Bo posters clung to nearly every elementary and mid school wall.  The campaign was built around professional athlete Bo Jackson, whom at the time played for the Chicago White Sox, and a local celebrity.  We were taunted by the wisdom Bo espoused. It beckoned us to think and be like Bo after all Bo knew best.  The syntax of the campaign was clear, you are better off getting on the “Bo bus” vs. embracing individuality. Bo has the characteristics that make you successful, everyone be like Bo. Simple.  While Bo did espouse characteristics worth employing, the campaign’s unintentional but undeniable tone of: “you can think independently as long as it’s in line with everyone else.”  What the Bo campaigns didn’t discuss is the human propensity to get caught in endless cycles of Group Think.  While we are all seeking some form of self-actualisation, the temptation to follow the crowd, and belong, is enticing. Even in instances when it goes against what we believe to be right, fair, just or in alignment with our own identities.    This is where a healthy dose of dissension can be the pathway to progress; it’s the antithesis to group think.

What is Group Think and why should it be abated?

The concept of Group Think has been around for 50+ years, it’s commonly defined as “a psychological phenomenon where people strive for consensus within a group.”  It’s singularly focused on how groups make decisions. Group think decision are made under coercive means and illustrate a strong need to pacify conflict within the group. This leads to myopic, illogical, and poorly thought through decisions.  Well known examples of group think include Nasa’s decision to launch The Challenger.  Kennedy’s authorisation of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and The Bush Administrations invasion of Iraq following 9/11.  In all examples conformity led to an illusion of grandeur, and unanimity resulting in disastrous outcomes.

While decisions “gone wrong” at scale make history what’s the harm of organisations or societies employing group think? Group think forces conformity, which in turn stifles innovation.  It’s a self-serving cycle where nothing new gets in, and the old is habitually recycled. This a breeding ground for toxicity and loss of identity.  While these attributes may not always lead to disasters, their by-products lead to poor performance, toxic cultures, and habitual bad decision making.

Group Think vs. Wisdom of the Crowds

But wait, I thought groups of people were wiser together than apart? The wisdom of crowd’s theory posits that the collective is smarter and makes better decision than the individual.  If this is true, group decisions even under coercion should yield a better result, right?   A study conducted out of Penn, (the link supplied below) found that while crowds are more effective in harnessing wisdom this changes when crowd starts interacting with one another.  Once social cohesion forms the outcomes are determined by the structures of the social groups.  According to the study, two types of groups emerge: egalitarian and centralised structures.

Within the egalitarian group structure, all members are equal.  Decisions are made by listening to each other without the presence of a leader or hierarchies.  All members are free to provide their insights, disagreements are seen as constructive, and the group decides collectively.  There is a natural multi-lateral filtering of the weak ideas from the strong ones.  Egalitarian group structures outperformed “crowd wisdom.”  They dependably made the best decisions without falter.

 The centralised group structure did not fare as well as its counterpart. Within this structure, an opinion leader emerges and sets the tonality for the group.  Within this structure, ideas were less freely shared, and consensus was more of an illusion.  Because disagreement in this structure is not promoted, consensus is a by-product of silence.   This group did not outperform “crowd wisdom” and across nearly all tests performed the poorest.  While the vernacular used is “group think” in this scenario it’s really a grouping of people relying on a single thought or opinion.


How to identify group think & how to abate it

Group think happens to all of us.  Falling victim to this is part of being human but recognizing when you are in a group think situation, can give you the power to choose whether to go with the flow, or employ a healthy dose of dissension.

Group think is often characterised by the following:

1.     Powerful leader (Can be authoritarian but does not have to be)

2.     Can emerge during times of stress or a crisis.

3.     Fear to express a counterview, without reprisal.

4.     Unwilling to entertain alternate views or pathways.

5.     Pressure to conform.

There are many ways to abate group think but here are a few tips I have found to be most effective:

1.     Embrace diversity, all forms, including intellectual and strengths-based diversity.

2.     Dissension: constructively speaking up has the power to change the outcome and the group dynamic.

3.     Recognise your own bias: we all have them, but they can become vindicated amongst like-minded people, while comfortable that doesn’t make it right.

4.     Promote egalitarian structures: if you are a leader, or have a strong voice actively encourage those that are less confident, or without a platform to speak, to speak up.

5.     Seek alternate pathways: there are always multiple pathways to achieving a goal, if you group is getting caught in myopia, try to identify alternate roads forward.


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