Unit 05 – Is The Will of the Group, the Will of the Members?

“You cannot hinder someone’s free will, that’s the first law of the Universe, no matter what the decision” – E.A Buccianeri

The concept of choice and free will is something that can often be taken for granted as we believe that we live out relatively unhindered existences! We work hard in our glass palaces, then relax by basking in all of capitalism’s gifts. During the day, even if we are not the boss, we generally (in the Western World) believe that we have free choice, and that our opinions are important. But is this always the case?

This articles deconstructs the concepts of small groups and groupthink. It aims to start a dialogue and pose challenging questions on whether within a smaller group environment we are truly thinking for ourselves, or are heavily influenced by the dynamics, ethics and politics of a group. While compromises are often necessary, this article aims to dive deeper and examine how and why our free will can be (often subconsciously) shaped through small group environments. It cross references research on the negative effects of groupthink, and then presents some potential solutions to assist teams in not loosing sight of “the big picture.”

Before we begin we must first answer the question of what is a small group? On face-value, this seems as subjective as the old “how long is a piece of string” question. To a global conglomerate, small might be a geographic region, whereas to a small business this could be confined to a few staffers. For our purposes, we will use Pennington’s (2011, p4) definition that states a small group is “between two and up to 30 members.” Unlike a simple aggregate of people, a group needs to fulfill two underlying goals criteria – interaction and interdependence of group member and need and goal alignment of members towards a particular end state (PSY 533, 2017).

But aren’t all groups the same? What makes a small group so different? Penn State (2017) defines four main differences between smaller groups and their larger counterparts:

  1. Have either a problem-solving or a task-specific orientation
  2. Are generally more democratic
  3. Have set meeting places (digital or real)
  4. Are more cohesive


Now in terms of dynamics, this is where free will can sometimes be lost. “Initial input into the group’s affective experience involves the individual-level moods and emotions of group members” (Kelly & Barsade, 2001). However after this, due to the nature of the small group, things get complicated. While out of the scope for this article, a high level overview of how dynamics can be mapped is presented below

(Kelly & Barsade, 2001)

In order to attempt to explain how members of small groups might adopt the will of the group, rather than their own, we will explore each of the four small group characteristics in more depth to identify variables which could impact a person’s thinking and create groupthink.


Task Specificity – when a team of people is tasked with completing specific, or solving a specific problem, they can often overlook the great goals of an organization and their “hyper-focus…leads to mistakes or ethical quandaries” (Bennett, 2009). This can exacerbate itself even further when the small-group is a targeted or niche team, with predisposed skills and notions of success.Small groups must ensure that they periodically take unbiased examinations of their actions to that of the larger organization (PSY 533, 2017).

Democratic Process – Small groups generally have “fewer communication channels to monitor, and therefore can focus on high-quality relationships,” (PSY 533, 2017) which in turns makes them more democratic overall. While this is overall a very good characteristic that can breed successful outputs, in a democracy not everyone is happy at all times!

Meeting Places – If meeting places are not defined or respected, then the communication channels of the small group can break down. Also, other meeting areas outside of work such as bars could be leveraged, which in turn might breed temptations of vices and have a slew of negative consequences (PSY 533, 2017).

Cohesion – Much like democracy, at its surface a cohesive unit is a great thing – a cohesive unit trusts in one another and facilitates better discourse and outputs! But in terms of groupthink, cohesion is the single most important factor in small groups that can cause people to loose their free will.


Groupthink is a phenomenon in which, “as a result of in-group pressures, a group prematurely, and often erroneously, comes to a consensus over a key issue or strategy despite evidence that points to the existence of ill-debated alternative courses of action” (Ntayi, et al., 2010). Penn State (2017) confirms that the overly cohesive group does not want to upset the status quo, even if wrong choices are made in order to maintain it!

The table below outlines a typology linking the five characteristics present in small groups and self managing teams, to the groupthink antecedent conditions that Janis presented in initial studies (Moorhead, Neck & West, 1998):

To supplement this high-level summary of consequences, there has been countless research on the negative effects of groupthink and the general consensus is that it can breed serious problems. “Members attempt to maintain a shared, positive view of the functioning of the group in the face of a collective threat” and in turn “formulate poorer quality solutions than groups in the low-threat cell” (Turner,  Pratkanis, Probasco & Leve, 1992).

As well as this, Heise’s (2013) research proves some subconsiouce side effects of this groupthink phenomena as a “monopolization of interaction by a few group members is an emergent,” and these members have direct and indirect influences on their peers. Even without a formal leader, power players aim to influence the group to their train of thought!


So what can we do to try and mitigate groupthink in our work environments, and ensure that group members are genuinely allowed to express their free will rather than be manipulated by their environments? Penn State (2017) lists the following precautions that we can be cognizant of and implement in our own small groups. These are all derived from Irving Janus’ (the pioneer of groupthink’s) research:

  • Group leader should assign role of critical evaluator to each member.
  • Leader should be impartial and not state preferences prior to discussion.
  • Organization should set up independent groups to work on the same problem to compare possible solutions.
  • Group should occasionally break into subgroups to work on the problem.
  • Each group member should discuss group decisions with a trusted associate.
  • Outside experts should be invited to group meetings to challenge group views.
  • At least one member should be assigned the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Group should survey rival group/competition’s warning signals.
  • After preliminary decision, group should have a second-chance meeting.

To summarize – act small, think big. We need to ensure that we put the appropriate safeguards in place so that when using small groups, every individual member is allowed to maintain their free will and has a positive impact on the group.



Bennett (2009, March 15). Ready, aim…fail. Why setting goals can backfire. The Boston Globe, C1.

Bucchianeri, E. A. (2011). Brushstrokes of a Gadfly. New York City: Batalha.

Kelly, J. R., & Barsade, S. G. (2001). Mood and emotions in small groups and work teams.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(1), 99-130. doi:10.1006/obhd.2001.2974

Heise, D. R. (2013). Modeling interactions in small groups. Social Psychology Quarterly, 76(1), 52-72. doi:10.1177/0190272512467654

Lowman, R. L. (2006). The ethical practice of psychology in organizations(2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Moorhead, G., Neck, C. P., & West, M. S. (1998). The tendency toward defective decision making within self-managing teams: The relevance of groupthink for the 21st century.Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2), 327-351. doi:10.1006/obhd.1998.2765

Ntayi, J. M., Byabashaija, W., Eyaa, S., Ngoma, M., & Muliira, A. (2010). SOCIAL COHESION, GROUPTHINK AND ETHICAL BEHAVIOR OF PUBLIC PROCUREMENT OFFICERS. Journal of Public Procurement, 10(1), 68-92. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/518419679?accountid=13158

Pennington, D. C. (2014). The social psychology of behaviour in small groups. New York: Routledge.

PSY 533. (2017). Unit 05, Lesson 10: Crises. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1868786/pages/l10-overview?module_item_id=23063480

PSY 533. (2017). Unit 05, Lesson 11: Small Groups. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1868786/pages/l11-overview?module_item_id=23063491

Turner, M. E., Pratkanis, A. R., Probasco, P., & Leve, C. (1992). Threat, cohesion, and group effectiveness: Testing a social identity maintenance perspective on groupthink. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(5), 781-796. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/0022-3514.63.5.781



  1. Peter Marceta November 27, 2017 at 11:05 AM #

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for your detailed reply and real world example. In the past I have had a similar experience, where a concentrated pocket of decision makers would simply pat each other on the backs and display serious groupthink.
    I unfortunately don’t know how to answer your question! It is very hard to implement any organizational change, without leaderships’ buy in. In this instance it seems that the people who would be required to remove group think have their judgement clouded and are victims of it.

  2. Don L Trumpie November 25, 2017 at 10:58 AM #

    Hi Peter,
    Great blog! The more reading done about group think when regarding small groups; the more the senior “staff” at our company comes to mind. They meet every morning around 8am until 10am. The group meets in the main conference room. There are 12 “staff” members. Some have titles such as, plant manager, business unit manager, human resources manager, but others have no real title but previously were plant manager, or business unit manager. It seems that for the most part, once in the “staff” group there is little chance of leaving it even if someone is bumped down a level in their position. The problem is the “staff” is suffering from group think and it causes poor decisions to be made.
    The staff meetings are more or less held behind closed doors and not discussed much outside of the small group. The staff team for the most part protect their decisions, and one another in the meetings. Someone made a big mistake this week? Not a problem they are covered by someone else who they protected the time before. Many of the “staff” make decisions about situations that they are not full familiar with. By distancing themselves from the shop floor where the work is actually done, and ignoring the engineers and other “experts” the staff chooses to base the company’s future on their perceptions and not reality. The list you outline from our PSY533 lesson would be a great way of helping to keep this group in check. The problem is, how do you implement a solution for a small group that is above everyone in the chain of command?

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