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Posts Tagged ‘Groupthink’

In working with many organizations on a wide range of complex decisions, I never fail to be amazed at the reaction to this question; “What is the goal of this decision?, what are we trying to decide?” Almost invariably, the question seems as though it triggers a line of thinking that has not been explored before. The question is usually met initially with a bit of silence, then a moment of anxious glances exchanged around the room, and lastly a free wheeling groping for the answer. In defense of those who seem to be the hot seat on the receiving end of this question, it is an easy although risky thing to overlook.

So how does something so central to decision making (what it is that is actually trying to be decided) get overlooked? Is it that so many casual decisions are made each day that we’ve come to believe it’s easy, and take this step for granted in our more complex deliberations? We shouldn’t assume that all decisions are created equal. Think about the tremendous levels of data collection and the amount of time spent by teams and individuals occupied with trying to inform these decisions.  Given all this activity it seems something must be well enough defined to drive the action, so there may be something more at play. I’ve begun to believe that perhaps the objective isn’t so much being overlooked, but that people often immediately switch in to a mode of mind reading and trying to manage the group agreement without giving the group and opportunity to disagree in order to resolve their conflicts productively and find their points of agreement.  As such, they are reluctant to say too much for fear of saying something that deviates from what may still be the unknown group norm or consensus. The idea is beautifully set out by Jerry B. Harvery in his article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.

Here is the short version of the paradox, you can read the more detailed discussion at the link above.

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

What is so compelling to me about the Abilene paradox is that the entire chain of events can be undone by the simplest expression of transparency or personal preference by anyone involved (including the father in law making the suggestion to go to Abilene) that they are content where they are, doing what they are doing.

This of course all points to, and highlights, several well know challenges in group decision making related to pluralistic ignorance, group think, and pseudo-consensus. When psychologist Irving Janis coined the term Groupthink in 1972, he identified eight symptoms of groupthink. Of the eight, these two seem to be most at play in the Abilene paradox.

  • Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  • Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

These express themselves in a very distinct way in what is called pluralistic ignorance. The research on pluralistic ignorance is very interesting. When college students were asked about the high levels of alcohol consumption on campus it was found that most did not want to partake at such extreme levels but were all acting as if they did out of fear of rejection from other like minded people also feigning a desire to partake. But it seems no one can break the ice in these situations. There is actually a silent majority awaiting a leader to coalesce and provide an opportunity to express their true feelings and act in accordance with their preferences. Watch Dan Ariely present the topic below, it’s truly interesting and relevant.

So taking all this into consideration, what if we could break through?

Let’s imagine the conversation on that porch in Texas goes a little differently;

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” “Are you kidding, it’s a miserable day to do that drive, and I’m pretty content here enjoying the company” The husband, despite havinghaving had reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step learns his preferences are right in line with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.”“Yeah, you know, I don’t need to go anywhere, life doesn’t get much better than this right here.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.” “I hate Abilene, he suggests this silly idea every time someone comes by, always worried that no one is content just setting here having a good time.”  THE END

Easy peasy. Ah, the simplicity of the transparent and explicit expression of real preferences. All it takes is one courageous person to break the dam and start the rush toward real consensus. Here are three things to consider to interrupt these groupthink processes in a collaborative decision;

  1. Assign a facilitator: This is someone who has the role of challenging the group and asking the hard questions. It is best that the facilitator have a limited, or better no, stake in the decision outcome. They can read body language and draw out asymmetrical information and try to find those silent majorities if they exist.
  2. Bring in outside experts: These outsiders to the group can be brought in and asked for expert opinion and can be given the role of devil’s advocate by the facilitator. These experts can be positioned on the fringe of the group making them more inclined to disrupt the group norm and draw out differences. These can be carefully chosen rogue or maverick type experts who are empowered to express their ideas.  The facilitator needs to support these experts and capitalize on the productive conflict they may generate.
  3. Use a decision process: Use a methodology like the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) to anonymously source preferences and aggregate the group point of view. Allowing each individual to state their preference independently and then discussing this as a group can provide a mechanism for finding the points of disagreement that can ultimately become the conflicts that are resolved to create true consensus and agreement.

Please offer your thoughts and insights about these issues, have you experienced any of these kinds of phenomena and how have you or your organization tried to resolve them?

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