A huge mass of employees gathered in an open place and demanding a salary increase. The demand gets vociferous, perhaps getting unmanageable. There are few instigators in the mass but you don’t know who they are. It goes on for a moment and you decide to take charge. Your team addresses the entire mass, like a political leader, and then the crowd starts cheering. Something magical happened- what was it? Were you a Pied Piper, if yes why didn’t you blow your pipe earlier? Did you make announcements of huge dole-outs or did the mass realize that you are their savior? There are many interpretations. Welcome to bizarre group behaviors - can they be interpreted and more importantly, can they be changed?
In 1972 Irving Janis, a psychologist at Yale University professed the theory of “groupthink” and described the systematic errors made by groups when making collective decisions. In a groupthink, people who are opposed to the decisions of group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of crowd.
Janis suggested that groupthink tends to be the most prevalent conditions where there is a high degree of cohesiveness. Situational factors like external threats and structural issues like group isolation also lead to groupthink. When people do groupthink, they demonstrate symptoms like illusion of invulnerability, illusion of unanimity, unquestioned beliefs and stereotyping. The risk taking capacity of the members go up, they tend to ignore the consequence of individual and group actions. They have a strong belief in their thinking and are resistant to thoughts that contradict them. The in-group members dominate the group and are not considerate or even hostile to the out-group members. The tacit conformity of members out of fear of getting socially ostracized is assumed as unanimity of group.
As HR practitioners, we experience groupthink among employees and employees who are least employable, demonstrate the strongest groupthink. I take the liberty to mention that employee protests and agitations are manifestations of groupthink.
In a groupthink, people who are opposed to the decisions of group as a whole frequently remain quiet, preferring to keep peace rather than disrupt the uniformity of crowd
In my article in People Matters (How to get a win-win wage settlement), I have mentioned that the outcome of a settlement is return on the investment on the processes. I have mentioned few processes as minimum mandate and few more processes as pre-work for wage negotiation. While I had focused on the processes to address groupthink in that article, this article will dwell on the behaviors of members in groupthink and share approaches to change this thinking.
My learning on group behavior was influenced from the stories of behavior of ducks - they flock together so that they are not hunted by predators and they keep distance among themselves so that they can stretch their wings. Even if the ducks move together to shield from external threat, they maintain personal space - an interpretation that is in sync with Janis’s theory of groupthink.
Will this insight about group behavior empower us to change groupthink of employees? Janis’ theory highlights the risk of systematic errors in collective decision. People in groupthink demonstrate symptoms of illusions, which aggravate the errors.
In any groupthink situation, it will make immense sense to look out for sub-groups. Even if there is no sub-group, interacting with employees in small groups will help improve the quality of decision they take collectively
With the knowledge on risks of groupthink and insights of behavior of people demonstrating groupthink, let us understand few approaches to change groupthink:
1. Challenge the assumption of cohesiveness: A necessary condition of groupthink is a high degree of cohesiveness among the members. We assume cohesiveness and give-in to the irrationality of groupthink. From my experience of handling groups, I have found that a group is never a single unit but an aggregate of multiple sub-groups. An example of a group that I recently handled were more than 700 employees demanding an astronomical salary increase. This group was an aggregate of employees of different skill categories and different functions. Most of the out-groups had rational expectations and only a few in-groups were irrational in their demand. Conversation with the out-groups enabled us to explain our solution and we could alter the groupthink.
2. Understand their external threat: Most groups are formed to shield themselves from external threat. Remember, the behavior of ducks - flocking is fundamental to shielding from attack. Not losing the existing benefits or earning is a more powerful motivation than getting something more. Employees engage in groupthink at times against fear of reprimand or discretionary actions of managers. It will make sense to make practice and communicate credentials of a policy driven and statutory compliances abiding organization.
3. Address group isolation: Need of social recognition is a basic human need and people who are deprived of this need will either show signs of withdrawal or will engage in groupthink. At times the feeling of isolation may be a perceived one, but for the group this perception is a reality. The solution to this issue is a cliché- engage, engage and engage.
4. Appreciate and leverage the power of sub-groups: As groups get smaller they become more rational. In any groupthink situation, it will make immense sense to look out for sub-groups. Even if there is no sub-group, interacting with employees in small groups will help improve the quality of decision they take collectively.
Our ability to diagnose group behavior and make interventions to alter the undesirable part will help us create lively organizations. Every individual’s contribution counts in building a great organization.