Guarding against groupthink

Feb. 12, 2007
It seems like common sense to involve the people closest to a problem in the problem solving discussion. But if that group isn't diverse enough, you are risking falling victim to groupthink, says Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker in his latest column.

How many times have you read in these and other pages about the importance of involving the people closest to the work when trying to solve a problem, improve plant performance or cut costs? Though conceptually simple, many technical professionals and managers just can’t pull it off. But failing to include people of diverse expertise in your decision-making group not only deprives it of vital, front-line information, it puts you at risk of groupthink: faulty decisions because group pressures lead to deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.

From Enron to our government, many organizations have suffered huge damage from groupthink among their accountants and upper-level managers. Irving Janus, social psychologist, defined the phenomenon as, “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” He enumerated eight symptoms:

1. Illusion of invulnerability: Produces excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

2. Collective rationalization:[b] Members discount warnings and don’t reconsider their assumptions.

3. Belief in inherent morality:[b] Members believe in the rightness of their cause and, therefore, ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

4. Stereotyped views of out-groups:[b] Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

5. Direct pressure on dissenters:[b] Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

6. Self-censorship:[b] Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

7. Illusion of unanimity:[b] The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

8. Self-appointed “mindguards:”[b] Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view or decisions.

You may be able to fend off groupthink just by having a line worker or technician or two in the room. A recent study by Sam Somers, Tufts University psychologist, examined mock juries — either all white or ethnically diverse — with volunteers from the public. He then provided the groups with ambiguous information about a fictitious crime involving a sexual assault and a black defendant. Sommers asked his “jurors” to determine whether the defendant was guilty.

Sommers had his juries draw their conclusions before the groups deliberated. About a third of whites in the diverse juries thought the defendant was guilty, while half of the jurors in all-white groups reached that conclusion. The mere presence of people of color in the diverse groups apparently caused whites to think about the case differently.

We tend to think Plant Services is immune to groupthink because, along with drawing on a diverse group of writers, we’re deluged with information from vendors, analysts and consultants. We actively seek input from industrial maintenance and reliability professionals through interviews and surveys, at conferences and in one-on-one encounters. We also pay a great deal of attention to reader feedback, e-newsletter click-throughs and Web site statistics. Still, when it’s time to decide what is and isn’t going to fit into the magazine, be highlighted in a newsletter or become a new site feature, we typically gather in a small group and talk amongst ourselves.

Along with giving the entire industrial maintenance community the opportunity to showcase and share their most successful processes, techniques and innovative uses of resources, the new Plant Services Best Practices Awards (page 32) help us guard against groupthink. Entries come from outside our editorial enclave, and are selected by real-world industrial denizens – you or people like you — who voted by using their precious time to download the stories they felt would do them the most good. Frankly, we had to post the entries and publish the winners whether or not we agreed with the results, and in some cases it has been an eye-opening experience.

We’ve always put a high priority on making sure our magazine and Web site content reflects the perspectives, wisdom and needs of the people who are closest to the work. But as 2007 unfolds, you’ll see us using the capabilities of digital media to put yet more power behind that priority by making it easy for you and your colleagues to help solve each other’s problems, raise your plant’s profits and increase your career satisfaction.

We hope you’ll take advantage of opportunities to join the Plant Services community. The best guard against groupthink is to have you in the group.

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