Fighting group thinking with dissent

Money and Business

Why dissent is essential to effective decision making.

In government, in the boards of directors, every day, the inhabitants meet in groups to take decisions.
More often than we would like, these decisions turn out to be wrong, sometimes very serious.
Governments waste billions, businesses go bankrupt and people suffer.
So why do groups sometimes make such horrible decisions?
Group decision making can go wrong in several predictable ways, but one of the most common is group thinking.
Group thinking is a well-known psychological phenomenon, but the techniques to combat it are less known.
Understanding how group thinking occurs and what can be done to combat it is vital for effective group decision-making, and therefore vital for a well-managed society and profitable businesses.

Group thinking

Group thinking emerges because groups are often very similar in background and values.
Groups also love – or at least have healthy respect for – each other.
As a result, when an attempt is made to reach a decision, a consensus emerges and any evidence to the contrary is automatically rejected, even ridiculed.
Individual members of the group do not want to shake the boat as this could harm personal relationships.
The pioneer of group thinking was the psychologist Irving Janis.
He analyzed the decisions made by three American presidents (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) to prolong the war in Vietnam.
Group thinking, he argued, explained why they had become stuck in their course of action, unable to explore alternatives.
Subsequent psychological research has confirmed Janis' arguments.
Experiments show that people quickly adopt the majority position and, above all, they ignore all the potential alternatives and all the contradictory evidence.
(Nemeth & Kwan, 1987)

Manufacturing dissent

Fighting group thinking, Janis said, is a matter of vigilant decision-making.
In practice, this means trying to make the group aware of the problems related to consensus and to propose alternatives.
To do this, someone in the group must be critical.

Encouraging critical thinking is not easy, but it is possible:

  • Devil's advocate:
    Someone in the group, but usually not the leader, is responsible for trying to spot the gaps in the decision-making process.
    This approach was tested by Hirt & Markman who encouraged the experimental participants to generate multiple solutions.
    The results showed that these participants demonstrated less sensitivity to group bias.
    Hirtand Markman (1995)
  • The power of authentic dissent:
    Unfortunately for the devil's advocate, they can easily be ignored because people don't take them seriously.
    So better someone who really believes in his critics.
    The following research has shown that, compared to a devil's advocate, bona fide dissidents are more likely to provide a greater quantity and quality of effective solutions.
    Nemeth et al. (2001)
  • Nourish authentic dissent:
    Group leaders play a crucial role in encouraging (or crushing) dissent.
    The following research analyzed the decisions made by a panel studying new medical technologies.
    Vinokur et al. (1985)
    The best results were associated with a facilitating chairperson who encouraged group participation rather than an overly presiding chairperson.

These techniques of eradicating group thinking therefore revolve around the encouragement of dissent.
To make a good decision, someone must be critical, otherwise mistakes are easily made.
It may sound relatively obvious, but there are all kinds of reasons why dissent is never expressed.
Nemeth & Goncalo, 2004

  • Organizations often recruit on the basis of who will fit into the boat and not tip it over.
    The stereotypical yes-man often emerges, perhaps subconsciously, as perfect for the job.
  • Group cohesion is highly valued for productivity (“are you a team player?”): Groups that always bicker are seen as doing less work.
  • Disagreement and the expression of conflicting opinions make people uncomfortable and try to suppress it, in part because dissent is easily misinterpreted as disrespect or even personal attack.
  • Dissidents are often labeled as troublemakers and targeted before conversion to consensus or outright expulsion from the group.

As a result, group dissidents are likely to be an endangered species.
To be effective, dissidents must follow a fine line, avoiding unnecessary confrontation or personal attack; instead, present minority views in an impartial, well-modulated and authentic manner.
For their part, the majority must fight their instincts to crush the dissidents and recognize the risk they take in criticizing the majority opinion.
Although majority consensus may be fair, it can be more secure in its decision if dissent is encouraged and all options are explored.

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