Please read the explanation of Irving Janis’ Groupthink Theory on pages 460-462 (see attached) in the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Then watch this video to understand a key element of this theory: our need to conform.
Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision. Under extreme pressure, groups may ignore alternatives to maintain unanimity. This can lead to carelessness and irrational thinking. Decisions shaped by groupthink have low probability of achieving success.
To put groupthink into context, read Group Communication Theories on pages 456-461 (see attached) in the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory, then listen as researcher Randy Hirokawa’s explains key group communication principles:
According to Janis, there are eight symptoms of groupthink:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
- 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.
- Self-appointed “mind guards” – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
One example of groupthink that had devastating consequences was the decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in January 1986. The people at a company called Morton Thiokol had developed the seals to the rockets that lifted the Shuttle into space. If the seals couldn’t close, the rockets wouldn’t function properly.
The following short-clip presents a re-enactment of a Morton Thiokol meeting when groupthink led the company to tell NASA to go ahead with the launch in weather many Morton Thiokol engineers felt was too cold for the seals to work properly:
The clip illustrates some of the steps that lead to groupthink and disastrous decision-making.
Questions to answer:
- Please relate an example of groupthink you have experienced, analyzing the situation based upon the symptoms of groupthink described here. Did you feel constrained or supported by leadership to express your views? What happened? Be sure to use the terms for the various symptoms of groupthink in your story. What did you learn from this experience?
- If you have not experienced groupthink, then please tell us: How do power relations influence how important decisions get made? When you become a boss (if you are not already), how will you use communication tactics wisely to avoid groupthink in your team?